By Kelvey Vander Hart
The thought of a species disappearing from the earth forever is awful – no one wants that to occur. This mindset has made it hard to criticize the Endangered Species Act, since the legislation clearly has a noble goal. But, if we truly care about protecting species from extinction, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask: Does the Endangered Species Act actually do its job?
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973, building upon the work of a law passed in 1966. Since the 1960s, the scope and funding of the act have significantly grown and changed, but the initial framework for establishing protections for species has remained the same. While the goal is an upstanding one, implementation has caused some problems – primarily, outcomes that are not in line with the intention of the Act.
The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a free-market environmental think tank, has been drawing attention to problems with the Act for some time. In testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources in 2018, PERC research fellow Jonathan Wood highlighted the troubling fact that only 3% of the species listed on the act ever actually recover, stating:
“The Endangered Species Act permits any interested person to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service urging the listing or delisting of a species. There is no cost to file a petition and minimal paperwork requirements. In principle, this is a laudable effort to empower anyone to participate in the process, regardless of their resources. In practice, a handful of well-heeled organizations, not plucky citizen-scientists, dominate the petition process.”
That explanation gets to the heart of the problem. It is incredibly easy to get a species protected by the regulations the act implements. And when you combine a large number of species under protection (at the time of writing, 2,360 total species are on the protected list) with heavy-handed regulation, only 3% of listed species recovering begins to make sense. Resources are spread thin, and regulations imposed on private landowners and state governments are demotivating – there is no incentive to help a species recover when its very existence adds a lot of regulatory hoops to be jumped through.
Ideas for Reform
While the current outcomes of the Act are often grim, there are certainly opportunities for reform. In fact, some have already begun to be implemented. Under the Trump administration, when considering species for delisting, the criteria expanded to include economic concerns (that are already identified and available for consideration under the Act) as well as scientific concerns. They also restored the differentiation between endangered and threatened species, which helps with prioritization, and made some changes in interagency cooperation standards.
But there is still a ways to go. In order to see a higher percentage of listed species begin to recover, there must be reforms to the regulatory burden placed upon local governments and landowners. While the ESA was designed to be a carrot-and-stick piece of legislation, it is currently only a stick. While it might seem like a funny turn-of-phrase, the burden of abiding by ESA regulations is real. The disincentives accompanying the law has prompted the very real standard operating procedure of “shoot, shovel, and shut up” to get rid of listed species that cost landowners money and time.
PERC has highlighted a better path forward to protecting species and encouraging cooperation:
“What if those incentives were reversed? What if landowners were paid to create and preserve habitat, or better yet, to raise endangered species as efficiently as they raise livestock? What if landowners knew that if a species’ population fell below a certain number, it would be listed — and if its population rose above a defined number, it would be de-listed? Those would be very powerful incentives for recovery of hundreds of endangered species.”
If we want to see thriving species in the next decades, we need legislation that incentivizes stakeholders to reach that goal. And, if the Endangered Species Act is not doing the job it was intended to do, that means the time for reform is now.
Kelvey Vander Hart is a native Iowan and a senior staff writer for the American Conservation Coalition.