Question of the Week: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. Has the Endangered Species been successful? How could the act be reformed or replaced to better serve people and endangered animals?
Editor of the Free Press opinion page
Forty years ago, in 1973, President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. The unintended consequences resulting from the federal government's heavy-handed intrusion into species conservation has cost Americans billions of dollars, assailed property rights, killed jobs and failed to protect the animals and plants it was ostensibly created to benefit.
In some cases, the ESA has assisted in increasing the population of certain species. Overall, however, only 1 percent of species (28 out of 2,000) under the protection of the ESA have recovered sufficiently for removal from the endangered species list. Twelve protected species have even become extinct under the ESA.
The ESA operates under two very faulty premises: First, that the best way to protect a species is to disregard property rights. Second, that all species are equally important and worth an infinite amount of money and effort to save.
When an endangered species is discovered on private property, the government either severely regulates or confiscates the land. Consequently, it is often in the best interest of property owners to kill an endangered species or demolish its habitat rather than admit to the federal government that the plant or animal lives on the land. That incentive to exterminate endangered plants and animals rather than protect them is a flaw that Congress must work to correct. An easy fix would be to properly compensate the landowner for the lost value of the land as a result of the limitations placed on the land's use as a result of protecting endangered species.
Utah State University professor Randy T. Simmons points out that the ESA "operates by assigning infinite value to every species and declaring that each must be saved." As a result, there is never an honest conversation about the value of each animal or plant in terms of what we, as taxpayers, have to spend in order to protect them. The effect is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars each year into protecting every purportedly endangered plant and animal, rather than focusing our limited resources on species that could most benefit from concentrated efforts. By targeting time and money on the certain species, the outcomes of public involvement in endangered species protection would improve greatly.
The ESA's intentions are good, but the policy's outcomes are negligible and its side effects are often disastrous. By taking steps to reward, rather than penalize, property owners whose land houses endangered species, and prioritizing which plants and animals receive the most attention, America can do a better job at guarding our imperiled species.
— The Free Press
James S. Burling
Director of Litigation, Pacific Legal Foundation
If we’re serious about effective species protection — without endangering the environment for jobs and community well-being — a number of ESA reforms are needed. Some welcomed reforms would include:
• Making the criteria more rigorous — currently, standards for listing species and critical habitat are elastic and unclear. The result is a pattern of overly broad or erroneous decisions due to “data error.”
• Basing listings on biology, not zip codes — The ESA currently applies not just to species as a whole, but to any “distinct population segment.” Overzealous regulators exploit this to label thriving species as “endangered” by focusing, arbitrarily, on narrow geographical regions.
• Treating property owners as partners, not pariahs — Under the ambiguous definition of “harm,” a property owner can be subject to civil or criminal sanctions even for actions that have only an indirect effect on protected plants or wildlife — hardly an incentive for cooperation. Why not motivate landowners with encouragement and teamwork rather than punishment?
Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute
The Endangered Species Act began as a noble attempt to protect rare animals — including the bald eagle! — but quickly became a blunt tool whose costs outweigh its benefits. Even on its own terms, its success has been meager: Only 28 of the more than 2,000 species that have come under ESA protection have been “delisted,” with another 25 upgraded from “endangered” to merely “threatened.”
The ESA creates perverse incentives to destroy habitat and even animals — hence the advice to “shoot, shovel, and shut up” — lest federal authorities stop landowners from using their property. A series of amendments have mitigated some of these unintended consequences, but more can be done to harness market forces to protect species or to decide that the regulatory costs aren’t worth it for a given species.
Finally, Congress lacks the constitutional authority to regulate wholly intrastate non-commercial species, such as the infamous delta smelt (a small fish in California’s central valley). In such cases, the federal government should bow out of the process.