In October, Congress considered attaching the
Endangered Species Recovery Act of 1997 (S. 1180) to the fiscal
year 1999 omnibus appropriations bill. To the relief of private
landowners and the future benefit of America's endangered species,
Congress ultimately abandoned that proposal.
Although supporters of S. 1180, including
the Clinton Administration, touted it as offering solutions for the
problems with the Endangered
Species Act (ESA) originally enacted in 1973, it fell far short of
that goal by not addressing its most serious flaws. For example,
its non-specific definition of "harm" to a species allows the
Department of the Interior to include any "habitat modification,"
even when there is no proof that such modifications would harm a
particular species. The costly results of this interpretation were
seen in California, when the government stopped the construction of
a hospital because it found eight endangered desert sand flies on
the property. The estimated cost to set aside the "habitat" for the
fly? About $400,000 per fly.
original intent of the ESA was to conserve and protect American
species of plant and wildlife that are threatened with extinction.
Species would be taken off the list when their numbers recovered.
According to the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife
Service (FWS), during ESA's 25 years, over 1,154 animals and plants
were listed as endangered or threatened; yet only 27 species have
been removed from the list. Moreover, an analysis by the National
Wilderness Institute shows that not one of those 27 species was
removed because its improved numbers could be attributed to
specific ESA activity. In fact, 7 of the 27 species were delisted
because they were found to be extinct, and 16 because erroneous
data had been used to justify their original listing.
May 5, 1998, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt announced that
another 33 endangered and threatened species were ready for
delisting. He touted these delistings as proof that the ESA was
working. The director of the FWS, Jamie Clark, later disputed that
claim in a letter to Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA), who
chairs the Endangered Species Task Force. Clark noted that she was
embarrassed personally by his claim, which was an "unfortunate
error." Clark also pointed out that Secretary Babbitt's list
includes species the agency believes to be extinct.
Unfortunately, not only does the evidence
fail to show that the current ESA recovers species; it also shows
that the ESA negatively affects the species it hopes to protect as
well as the people who could best assist in their preservation.
The ESA allows the federal government
to prohibit landowners from modifying their property simply because
the land could provide suitable habitat for an endangered species
without supplying proof that such modifications indeed would "harm"
The ESA allows the federal government
to confiscate or regulate private property that has a listed
species on it or that offers suitable habitat for endangered
species without compensating the owners for the "taking" of their
property as required by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S.
The ESA fails to require agencies to
use sound science in their decisions and to examine the economic
consequences of their actions.
The ESA's negative incentives encourage
private landowners to clear their land of endangered species and
Numerous stories of financial loss have
come to light that highlight the ESA's perverse incentives and
costly effects. For example, in Oregon, a district judge issued a
logging moratorium on privately held land when two spotted owls
were found nesting about one mile from the 94-acre plot. It was not
known if, in fact, the owls used the land. Such reported
interpretations of the ESA persuade landowners to keep endangered
species off their property and heighten the calls for Congress to
reform the act.
reform the ESA so that it fulfills the public's desire to protect
endangered species and honors property rights as well, Congress
should consider implementing changes that ensure:
Its definition of "harm" means specific
actions of a landowner that cause the death of or physical injury
to a threatened species.
Landowners are compensated for federal
"takings" of property to protect species.
Department of Interior agencies use
sound, objective, and unbiased science and a rational examination
of the economic consequences of federal action in their
Incentives are designed to make
landowners partners in the government's effort to save wildlife and
plant species from extinction.
government estimates that the cost of successfully recovering all
of the species on the endangered species list could run more than
$4.6 billion. Even this estimate is misleading, however, because it
covers only recovery costs; that is, it does not include the money
that would be spent on consulting with scientists and stakeholders,
lost jobs, foregone wages, and the social costs connected with the
Richard L. Stroup of the Political Economy Research Center
[I]t is ironic that the Constitution
explicitly forbids the U.S. Army, even in the name of national
defense, from requiring that a citizen quarter a soldier (that is,
provide food and shelter for a soldier). Yet the government can
require the same citizens to quarter a grizzly bear, a spotted owl,
or any other member of a threatened or endangered species, at the
Congress should reform the ESA so that
private landowners and endangered species both benefit.
Annett is a Research Assistant in The Thomas A. Roe Institute for
Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.