How to Fix the Failed Endangered Species Act

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit recently announced the removal of 33 species from the endangered species list. According to the Secretary, this provides evidence that "the Endangered Species Act works, period." His claim comes as the ESA is being considered for renewal, the law having lapsed in 1992.

The 33 new removals bring the total number of species removed from the 26-year-old act to 60. That's 60 of the 1,704 species listed, only a 3.5 percent removal rate. If a federal education program for high-risk students had a 3.5 percent graduation rate, would it be a success? How about a doctor who only cured 3.5 percent of his patients?

Measured by any reasonable standard, the ESA has failed, period! A careful examination of the 60 species removed from the list paints a bleak picture:

  • 12 were removed due to extinction.
  • 24 were removed because of "data errors" - they had either been undercounted or later determined not to be distinct species.
  • 9 exist solely on federal lands and are protected without the ESA.
  • 3 were decimated by a pesticide, DDT, and recovered due to the DDT ban in 1972.
  • The 12 remaining species are conserved by state agencies or private organizations, with only minimal federal contributions.

Not one of the species removed from the list is attributable to ESA protection.

The cost of this failed act is difficult to estimate. Federal spending on the ESA totals tens of billions of dollars. Additional tens of billions of state, local, and private dollars have been spent in complying with ESA requirements. And, these are merely the direct costs.

The true costs of ESA should be measured in houses, homeless shelters, and hospitals not built or significantly delayed; medical and technological discoveries not advanced; funds not available for education, crime control, health. safety and environmental matters; and in "protected" species lost or still on the list and declining.

The ESA has failed because it creates perverse incentives to destroy species and their habitat. More than 75 percent of the listed species depend on private land for all or part of their habitat. Yet if people provide suitable habitat for an endangered species their land becomes subject to severe regulation if not confiscation. As a former Fish and Wildlife service official stated, "The incentives are wrong here. I have a rare metal on my property, its value goes up. But if a rare bird occupies my land, its value disappears. We've got to turn it around to make the landowner want the bird on his property."

Property owners are faced with three undesirable options: kill an endangered species member - or "shoot, shovel, and shut up" - destroy habitat before a species sets up house, or lose the use and value of their land. Clinging to this approach will condemn the very species we want to protect.

Paying landowners when their property is restricted, in contrast, would keep them from facing a choice between their own welfare and that of the endangered species.

The survival of endangered species rests with American property holders. For 26 years we have made them adversaries of endangered species. At a minimum, we must make property owners allies in species conservation by compensating them for losses incurred when protecting species. Other problems will remain, but this is a necessary first step.

H. Sterling Burnett is the Environmental Policy Analyst with the National Center for Policy Analysis. Bryon Allen was a Kock Foundation intern with the NCPA. The NCPA is a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization based in Dallas, Texas.

This Op Ed ran in the Fort Worth Star Telegram November 1, 1998.