The Washington Post

Protecting endangered foreign animal and plant species

From leopards and zebras to penguins and giant pandas, Janine Van Norman is working to make sure these and other endangered foreign species will be around for future generations.

As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s first-ever branch chief for foreign species, Van Norman seeks to protect animals and plants native to other countries that are at risk of becoming extinct. There are currently more than 600 foreign species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“At the Fish and Wildlife Service, we are entrusted in identifying species in need and providing them with protections,” said Paul Souza, deputy assistant director for the endangered species program. “Janine really cares about protecting species and their habitats, and she leads by example and with passion.”

The Endangered Species Act requires the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to list species as endangered or threatened, regardless of where they are located. American citizens and residents without the proper permits are prohibited from activities such as hunting, selling, importing or exporting threatened or endangered species. By regulating these activities, the United States ensures that citizens and residents under its jurisdiction do not contribute to the further decline of the listed species.

Van Norman, who began her career as a wildlife inspector at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and as a supervisory wildlife inspector at the Port of Miami, said she knows from first-hand experience how regulating these activities helps diminish a species’ further decline.

Janine Van Norman of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Kate Norman/USFWS)

To determine whether a foreign species should receive protections, Van Norman and her team of three biologists conduct year-long scientific reviews.

Van Norman said a review typically begins with a petition by an individual, organization or foreign government. Once Van Norman and her team have assessed the validity of a petition, they use the best available scientific and commercial information to make a determination.

Since they are reviewing species located outside this country, Van Norman said they must rely heavily on information from foreign nations, species experts and various data to analyze how many of the species are left in the wild, the threats to their habitats and survival.

Van Norman admits that not being on the ground conducting the research can be challenging, particularly when “there are gaps in the data for some of the species that been petitioned to list, or there are only one or two researchers in the world who are experts on that specific species.”

Souza, however, praised Van Norman for her ability to conduct “an investigation of science in other countries.”

“Janine has a real ability to investigate and talk to people in other countries to learn the condition of the species. She then can take it all in and see if the species warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act,” he said.

Van Norman and her team also investigate whether certain species should be reclassified from threatened to endangered or from endangered to threatened, and whether threats have been reduced or eliminated to the point that the species can be removed from the list. Delisting a species requires a five-year scientific review, or as Van Norman noted, a “min-Ph.D. on that species.”

She said the Fish and Wildlife Service recently removed the Morelet’s crocodile, which is native to Central America, from the list of endangered and threatened species. This species was first listed as endangered in June 1970.

“It takes a while to see the results once you put protections in place, but we are making a difference by taking a really thoughtful approach to wildlife conservation,” said Van Norman. “The ultimate goal is recovering the species, and we are doing this with some. Ideally, it would be all, but we are making headway.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Go to to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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