The Endangered Species Act At Age 30

Lots of interesting commentary on the recent 30th birthday of the Endangered Species Act. Let’s start with Juan non-Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy, with a post chock-full of good links to follow with more information on how miserably the ESA has failed to meet its objectives. One of the most important observations from Juan’s post is:

McCloskey’s second faulty premise is more serious – and far more widespread. Implicit in his argument – and much of the environmental policy debate – is the notion that the only way to be “pro-environment” is to support expansive federal regulation, and the Republican commitment to environmental protection can only be shown by embracing the federal environmental regulatory apparatus. This is silly.

Indeed. In fact, there are a lot of us out here who devote our personal and professional lives to showing the many, diverse ways that being pro-environment and pro-market are exceedingly compatible, and that being pro-environment does not necessitate drinking the federal regulatory kool-aid on the subject.

Juan also links to Karl Hess’ study on the black-footed ferret, which is a thorough and well-research analysis with lots of useful references. Hess’ study suggests that the near demise of the BFF was the consequence of federal land use policy, implying that the ESA’s saving of the BFF was a rectification of a problem of the government’s own creation.

Much of the other discussion out there has gone into detail on the DDT topic, and the extent to which DDT is or is not harmful to humans and other animals. See, for example, this Crumb Trail post and this Insults Unpunished post. Links included therein are helpful and informative.

Reason has another article on the ESA by Ronald Bailey, colorfully titled “Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up”. Convenient, as that is the precise phrase I used in introducing this idea to my students yesterday.

For an in-depth policy analysis of the ESA, see this PERC policy study by Rick Stroup. He concludes

In summary, any reform of the Endangered Species Act should have as its goal making endangered species the friend, not the enemy, of landowners. This can be largely accomplished by ending the Fish and Wildlife Service’s power to control land without compensation.

Several results will stem from such a change. Landowners will no longer fear finding endangered species on their property and will become much more cooperative. The Fish and Wildlife Service will go “on budget.” Its goals will be weighed against other desirable goals, and it will have an incentive to husband its resources, try out creative approaches, and establish priorities.

I also cannot recommend highly enough the work of my friend and former colleague Michael DeAlessi on this subject. Michael had a Washington Times oped on the subject last week (which was reprinted in the Rocky Mountain News):

For starters, the ESA has done precious little to help endangered animals. Since the act’s passage, seven American species have gone extinct. Meanwhile, while over 1,260 species have been listed as “endangered” or “threatened,” only 10 North American species have “recovered,” often due to efforts unrelated to the ESA.

Even worse, the ESA has often backfired, prompting needless destruction of wildlife habitat as it expanded from its initial mission of helping endangered species to blocking economic activity across the country.

Based on the assumption that species are threatened as “a consequence of economic growth and development,” the ESA gives the authority to limit activities on both public and private land. This misguided notion – that conservation and commerce are incompatible – has dominated the application of ESA since it was passed in 1973.

He then goes on to mention the whole Tellico dam snail darter episode, which Glenn Reynolds also mentioned in his post on the subject. But the most interesting ideas contained in Michael’s oped come from his August 2003 Reason/Pacific Research Institute study of Earth Sanctuaries, Ltd., a private organization in Australia whose core business is conservation of endangered native species. ESL is publicly traded, and although they face substantial challenges because of the difficulty of valuing their asset portfolio of species, they are succeeding.

By selling shares and offering shareholder-only discounts and weekends at their sanctuaries,ESL encourages investors who simply want to fund effective species conservation. ESL also created the Earth Sanctuaries Foundation,a non-profit organization separate but complementary to ESL. …

ESL,on the other hand,proved that turning species and other environmental amenities into tangible assets is a sound path to stewardship.The results cannot be denied and for legislators and policymakers,the lessons are clear.Private conservation works and should be the keystone of policy for protecting endangered species in Australia,America,Africa,and around the world.

I strongly encourage reading Michael’s study, which is fascinating and indicates how effective private conservation approaches can be at preserving species, in contrast to the failed control-and-manage approach embodied in the Endangered Species Act.


2 thoughts on “The Endangered Species Act At Age 30

  1. Republican commitment to the environment can be demonstrated in all sorts of ways. It usually isn’t because the environment is a low priority for most Republican politicians, and the reason this is true is that it is a low priority for most of the business interests that support them.

    Can one design less-intensive regulatory regimes that protect the environment better? Sure, in most areas anyway. One can also design less-intensive regulatory regimes that do not protect the environment as well. Academic observers are not practiced in telling the difference; they do not focus on what follows from the reality that the environmental impact of some business activities impose costs that the responsible businesses have every reason to see someone else pay.

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