Bad for Species, Bad for People: What’s Wrong with the Endangered Species Act and How to Fix It

Policy Reports | Energy and Natural Resources

No. 303
Saturday, September 01, 2007
by Brian Seasholes

The Endangered Species Act Has a Poor Record of Recovering Species

The ESA's land-use controls help explain the small number of recovered species.  Landowners who provide habitat for endangered species are punished for doing so.  Thus, as detailed above, when landowners make their property inhospitable to species or refuse to allow government biologists to survey their land for species, the result is a poor conservation record.

The goal of the ESA is to recover species, or bring them to the point that they no longer require the Act's protection. A species can be delisted, or removed from the Act's protection, for one of three reasons: recovery, extinction or data error.  Recovery means that the actions taken successfully conserved the species.  Extinction is self explanatory.  Data error means the species was mistakenly listed, because later data proved the species to be either too numerous to merit protection (such as the Rydberg milk-vetch) or not taxonomically unique.  [See the sidebar on on flawed data.]

According to the Service, 46 species have been delisted. [See Figure IV.]  The reasons are:

  • Nineteen species were removed because they had recovered.
  • Seventeen species were later found to have been listed incorrectly due to data error — that is, they were not endangered at the time of their listing or are not taxonomically unique.
  • Nine species were determined to be extinct.
  • One species was removed because it had partially recovered and partially because the data was in error. 32

However, even the most cursory examination of claims of recovered species reveals that much, if not all, of the credit for these species' improved prospects does not belong to the ESA.

“The ban on the pesticide DDT, not the ESA, is the paramount reason for the recovery of endangered eagles, falcons and pelicans.”

The Case of DDT and Birds .  It is widely acknowledged that the ban on the pesticide DDT in 1972, not the passage of the ESA in 1973, is the paramount reason for the resurgence of the bald eagle, American and Arctic subspecies of the peregrine falcon, and the eastern brown pelican.  The relationship between DDT and the reproductive health of these birds, including their decline and subsequent rebound, has been established by a large and authoritative body of peer-reviewed literature. 33

The Case of the American Alligator.  The Service and others claim the American alligator recovered from near extinction due to the protection of the ESA.  Upon the Act's passage in 1973, the alligator was listed due to the fear that over-hunting for its valuable skin was driving it toward extinction.  But in 1973, the alligator was in fine shape.  For instance, a 1973 survey by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission found an estimated total population of 734,348 in the states within the alligator's range.  In 168 counties, the survey found the alligator's population was increasing , in 152 counties the population was stable, and in 25 the population was decreasing. 34 However, the survey did not include Florida, which along with Louisiana contains most of the species.  The foremost experts on Florida alligators, in the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, thought the state's population was increasing. 35 The Service confirmed the validity of the data by citing in 1976 the overall estimate of nearly three-quarters of a million alligators. 36

“No species has recovered solely because of the ESA.”

More evidence that the alligator listing was a case of data error is that the species takes 10 years to reach sexual maturity; if the species were truly endangered in 1973, it would have taken at least 10 years for increased numbers of hatchlings to reach maturity.  Thus, if alligators were endangered and their numbers increased due to the protection of the Act, the earliest it could have been delisted due to a population rebound was 1983.  However, the Service allowed delisting to begin eight years earlier.  The alligator was delisted over various portions of its range from 1975 to 1987. 37 This is a clear indication that the agency knew the alligator was not endangered. 38 In addition, illegal hunting, the purported reason for the alligator's listing, was effectively ended by a 1969 amendment to the federal Lacy Act, which prohibits interstate transportation of wildlife taken in violation of a state's law. 39 Actual Reasons for Delisting 46 Species

The Case of Tropical Birds.  Four species of birds native to former U.S. Pacific trust territories were listed under the ESA because portions of their habitats were devastated by heavy fighting during the Second World War:  the Palau owl, Palau fantail, Palau ground dove and Tinian monarch.  Unsurprisingly, surveys just after the war found few of these birds.  As the islands revegetated in the ensuing decades, the birds rebounded.  But shortly after the ESA's passage in 1973, the Service listed these four large and healthy species, based on surveys carried out almost 30 years before. 40

“Species that are plentiful, but were listed incorrectly, include alligators, tropical birds and kangaroos.”

The Case of Three Abundant Kangaroos.  The red, eastern gray and western gray kangaroos from Australia are the “the most abundant large mammal[s] in the whole world,” according to Michael Archer, director of the Australian National Museum and professor of biology at the University of New South Wales. 41 The combined population of these three species when they were delisted in 1995 was around 23 million. 42

When the Service finally delisted the kangaroos it admitted: “The white-tailed deer may be about as numerous in the United States as are the three kangaroos in Australia.” 43 The agency had to have known this for the kangaroos' 21-year tenure on the list.  Despite the fact that listing these kangaroos was clearly data error, the Service classifies them as recovered.

The kangaroos were listed in 1974 due in part to pressure from the animal rights lobby opposed to Australia's culling of 1 million to 3 million 'roos per year for their hides and meat — a number that these species can easily absorb given their massive population and high fecundity in years of plentiful grazing. 44

The other reason the kangaroos were listed was political.  Most members of Congress had no inkling of the ESA's power to control land use when they passed the Act in December 1973.  The Service, fully aware of the Act's massive power, was reluctant to list any domestic species for fear of earning the ire of Congress over a land or water use control issue.  So the Service listed no species until 1974, when it decided that listing three foreign species, the three kangaroos, would avoid any potential domestic political entanglements. 45

An Accurate Accounting of Delisted Species.  As shown in Figure V, an accurate categorization of the delisted species is:

  • Twenty-seven species have been removed due to data error — including the American alligator, which was delisted soon after it was listed because it was found to be abundant, clearly indicating it was never endangered and was improperly surveyed.
  • Nine species were determined to be extinct.
  • Five species were delisted due primarily to factors unrelated to the ESA including the ban on the pesticide DDT.
  • Five species were delisted for a variety of other reasons including: private conservation; state, not federal, conservation efforts; and recovery in spite of harm done by the ESA.

There are two important factors to keep in mind when considering these categories.  First, there is significant overlap among a number of species (except, of course, the extinct species).  For instance, although the American alligator and three kangaroo species are cases of data error, the ESA also harmed their conservation by stymieing trade in their hides, a key incentive for landowners to harbor these species.  Another example of overlapping categories is the American, or anatum , subspecies of peregrine falcon.  While the single most important cause of its recovery was the 1972 banning of the pesticide DDT, not the passage of the ESA in 1973, experts say the ESA hindered the falcon's conservation. 46

Second, the ESA did contribute toward the recovery of some species.  The Act helped conserve the bald eagle by providing funding for various conservation efforts and through controlling land-use on federal property.  However, when compared with the likely harm done to the eagle by the ESA's perverse incentives, the Act probably did more harm than good to the national bird. 47

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