Happy[?] 40th Anniversary of the Endangered Species Act

dreamstime_l_2440547Forty years ago today Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law.  Overnight, the Act became one of this country’s most powerful environmental laws.

But before breaking out the champagne ask yourself how such a powerful tool can have such poor results? Only about 1 percent of species listed as “endangered” or “threatened” have been removed from the list and the price per species is high. The desert tortoise, for example, received $190 million in tax-dollar support from 1996 to 2009, without doing much for the tortoise.

The past 40 years have shown how good political intentions—or at least political maneuvering—in the name of environmental protection can create perverse economic incentives to do the opposite.

As the readers of this blog know, the discovery of federally listed species can result in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designating private property as critical habitat and lock up private land. And you also know that rather than risk loss of economic value under the imposition of heavy-handed regulations, rational landowners, motivated by self-interest, will destroy both the rare critters and the critical habitats they need to live.

Despite this adverse arrangement, environmental entrepreneurs are still finding cause for celebration. Meet Hank Fischer and Kent Carter.

Hank Fischer was concerned about the gray wolf. It was on the endangered species list and extinct in the American West. Efforts to reintroduce it in the region had been unsuccessful, largely because the local population didn’t want hungry wolves killing their livestock. Rather than fight the ranchers in the region, Hank established a fund to compensate locals for losses and give them incentives to support the growth of the wolf population.Today, the gray wolf is no longer endangered. Watch more here.

More recently, Kent Carter invited scientists to search his family’s ranch in the Bay Area for signs of endangered plants and animals. When federally listed species were found, he recalled, “We had a celebration.” What? According to James Workman with Environmental Defense, Kent is figuring out how to get around the rigidity within the ESA. He is a master at using tools such as Habitat Conservation Plans, Conservation Banking Agreements, and Safe Harbor—all of which offer legal protections and incentives in the form of mitigation credits, similar to credits for conserving wetlands. When Kent improves riparian lands, for example, he can sell endangered steelhead credits. He then uses the cash earned from trade in habitat credits and reinvests into replenishing other landscapes for rare species.

For a more proactive approach, Todd Gartner with World Resources Institute is working on a pilot project with the Department of Defense to promote increased eastern gopher tortoise management on private lands to preclude the need to ever list the species. If the tortoise is officially listed it would  mean a loss of public training areas for the army and red tape for private landowners and developers. This candidate species banking model, as outlined in a recent report from the Conservation Leadership Council, can be replicated in other regions dealing with candidate species such as the lesser prairie chicken and greater sage-grouse. Candidate conservation banking represents a system of positive incentives for environmental stewardship and could enhance species conservation by motivating more effective and less expensive habitat management.

The strategies Hank, Kent, Todd and other enviropreneurs are using today were laid out 40 years prior to the Endangered Species Act. The great conservationist Aldo Leopold pleaded with policy makers to experiment with many systems instead of “one-track laws” and claimed that “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.”

If we want to do better than 1 percent we should keep the basic lessons of Leopold in mind and keep thinking beyond the regulatory box for biodiversity.

6 Comments
  1. Steve 4 years ago

    The average time species have been on the endangered list is 24 years. The average length of times specified for recovery by federal recovery plans is 42 years. Thus, as the GAO and numerous scientists have noted, it is as irrational to complain that only 1% of listed species have recovered as it is to complain that that a 10 day antibiotic regime has not produced health in 10 days.

    A more rational measure of the ESA’s success is whether it has prevented extinction (99.9% successful) and whether species are recovering at the rate established by their recovery plans (90%).

  2. Laura Huggins 4 years ago

    Thank you for your comment Steve. I agree that there are many ways to measure the success of the ESA (some much more dismal than the 1 percent outcome). The point still holds that we can be better at species conservation by motivating more effective and less expensive habitat management.

  3. Profile photo of
    Brent Fewell 4 years ago

    Roger Scruton, in his book, How to Think Seriously About the Environment, talks about the frequent unintended consequences of government regulation or the “nasty habit of producing opposite results to those intended, precisely by changing people’s incentives in ways that were not foreseen.” Increasingly, we are at risk of what I call the bureaucratization of environmentalism, where, tragically, good intentions are misaligned with good solutions, resulting in bad outcomes. Take for example, my small community here in Southern MD, where the local government has instituted so many requirements for protecting water resources, that not only are they discouraging good environmental stewardship but encouraging destructive and illegal behavior. http://conservefewell.org/?p=486

    Given that endangered species (and their habitat) are found mostly on private lands, all the more reason to ensure that government regulation provides the right incentives. I think there is a need for ESA (as a backstop against extinction), but relying solely upon command-and-control approaches is a big mistake and a lost opportunity. There isn’t enough police power (or bureaucrats) to monitor and enforce against private landowners who choose to do the wrong thing under a pure regulatory regime.

  4. Matt Chew 4 years ago

    About 60% of US lands are privately owned, while less than 30% are held federally. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for around 40% of that federal land, plus additional reserved subsurface rights. Much BLM-managed land remains under federal control because nobody wanted it—it was too remote and/or its resources (importantly including water) were too sparse for homesteading. To say that “endangered species (and their habitat) are found mostly on private lands” without acknowledging that (a) most lands are private, and (b) private lands are, on average, far more resource-rich than public lands seems like a misrepresentation by omission.

    It is certainly true that regulation will fail if its success relies on police power. But that doesn’t excuse or explain why private landowners would choose to do the wrong thing once the right thing (as codified in law) was established. Why not just expect more of private landowners rather than “incentivizing” them via wealth redistribution? If private citizens can’t be trusted to adhere to standards that accomplish societally valued and legally codified outcomes, bribing them to toe the line fosters a culture of extortion, and institutionalizes moral hazard.

    • Profile photo of
      Brent Fewell 4 years ago

      Matt, no misrepresentation intended or made – just stating a fact. Also, by suggesting that private landowners may not always make the right decision, I was in no way suggesting that all are breaking the law (although it would be misrepresentation to say no lawbreaking occurs). First, not all habitat desirable for endangered species is regulated. Second, providing landowners the right incentives to protect species and habitat is a more sustainable approach. There are many examples of landowners clearing their property of habitat desirable by protected species before a T&E species takes up residence and becomes an economic lability. The Red Cockaded Woodpecker is a prime example. Many landowners in the Southeast will harvest young pine stands on their property before the trees will be mature enough to attract the woodpecker; otherwise, the woodpecker becomes an economic liability. Conservation banking, and turning T&E secies into an economic gain or something that’s desirable can result in better outcomes for species protection.

  5. Profile photo of
    Brent Fewell 4 years ago

    Matt, and you’re right, we should expect people to obey the law.

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