On December 28, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) into law. Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich.) looks back on the years since then and swoons: "Without this law, there might not be a single bald eagle or peregrine falcon in our skies. No manatees or cut-throat trout in our waters, and no gray wolves or grizzly bears in our forests. This monumental legislation has, quite literally, saved our natural heritage while allowing the U.S. economy to grow at record rates," read a press release Dingell's office issued earlier this week.
When one sees such an unqualified endorsement of a major piece of regulatory and environmental legislation from a congressman as respected as Dingell, one realizes there has to be more to the story. Indeed, it's not at all clear the ESA has actually done any clear good for endangered species, much less for humans. Nor is it clear that those two goods go together.
First, according to the government's own statistics, there seem to be more endangered species than ever. In 1967, then-Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall listed 78 species as threatened with extinction under the pre-ESA Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. Today, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) lists 517 animal species and 746 plant species in the United States as endangered or threatened, for a total of 1,263 species. No one really knows the total number of species in the United States, but one estimate by the conservation group NatureServe puts it at 36,500 species and 10,775 subspecies. So if FWS is right, that means that about 3.5 percent of all species or 2.7 percent of all species and subspecies in the U.S. are either endangered or threatened.
Although environmentalists try to suggest that saving endangered species protects humanity, too, the fact is that species preservation is really important only on aesthetic and moral grounds. See, for example, a review article, "Prospects for Biodiversity" in the November 14 issue of Science. The article notes, "In truth, ecologists and conservationists have struggled to demonstrate the increased material benefits to humans of 'intact' wild systems over largely anthropogenic ones [like farms]… Where increased benefits of natural systems have been shown, they are usually marginal and local."
The Science article relentlessly continues, "Nowhere is this more starkly revealed than in the extinction of species." Humanity, after all, has been responsible for the extinction in many parts of the world "of all or most of the larger terrestrial animal species… This means that the 'natural' systems we currently think of in these parts of the world (North and South America, Australasia, and virtually all oceanic islands) are nothing of the sort, and yet they still function at least according to our perceptions and over time scales we are currently capable of measuring." In other words, we don't need a lot of species to insure our own species' comfortable existence.
That's good to know when contemplating the ESA. As we already saw, it has not slowed the listing of new species on the endangered list. Nor has it been particularly successful in bringing species already listed back from the brink of extinction. According to the FWS only 15 species have been delisted because their numbers increased sufficiently. These include American alligators, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, Aleutian geese, gray whales, and gray wolves. The bald eagle might be getting close to stable numbers as well.
Even that short list isn't necessarily to the ESA's credit. It is generally acknowledged that banning DDT, which thinned bird's eggshells, brought back the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, and the brown pelican.
And to hearken back to Dingell's list of majestic wonders we can only thank the ESA for, it should be noted that calling its protection of manatees a success is a bit premature. Anyway, well before the ESA—back in 1907—Florida made it illegal to hunt manatees. But they continue to be run over by (as yet unbanned) boats.
Grizzly bears and gray wolves, on Dingell's list, are indeed nowhere near being extinct, but then they never were in such danger. It's true that between 50,000 and 100,000 grizzly bears once roamed the American West, and today there are only 1,300 or so in the lower 48 U.S. states. However, there are an estimated 53,000 in Canada and Alaska. And while there may be only some 3,700 gray wolves in the lower 48, 58,000 of them roam and howl in Alaska and Canada.
The gray wolf brings up some sticky questions about whether we ought to value species proliferation for its own sake. Westerners have plenty of good reasons to want to see the gray wolf go away, mostly because of the threat the animal poses to wildlife and pets. Environmentalist groups like Defenders of Wildlife who advocated the return of the gray wolf to the Yellowstone region finally understood that local people had a point about wolf predation of their livestock. Realizing that they would never overcome local opposition to reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone, the environmental groups eventually established a fund to compensate ranchers for their losses to wolf predation.
That practice of compensation isn't always followed when it comes to the costs that arise for humans from trying to preserve other species. This brings us to the most important reason why ESA supporters should not be cheering the great good the law has supposedly done. When it comes to private land, ESA encourages not preservation of endangered species, but their quick shooting. If an endangered species is found on a farmer's property, she has every incentive to, as they say, "shoot, shovel, and shut up."
Or consider the case of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. These woodpeckers prefer to nest in pines that are at least 70 years old, and fledglings usually set up new nests within a 15-mile radius of where they were hatched. In the 1980s, timber owners were not allowed to harvest timber within a 60- to 300-acre area around a woodpecker nest because of ESA restrictions. This limitation could cost them as much $200,000 in lost profits.
Economists writing in the Journal of Law and Economics found that timber owners in North Carolina changed their practices to avoid the problems that would result from finding those woodpeckers on their property. Owners within 15 miles of a protected red-cockaded woodpecker nest tended to harvest more trees and others tended to cut trees when they hit 40 years old rather than wait for the trees to mature into something that might attract a nesting woodpecker.
Following the model of the wolf compensation fund, though, might encourage landowners to behave as good stewards of endangered wildlife. If saving species is a worthy national goal, then we should compensate the people who have to pay to achieve that goal. After all, we don't simply seize someone's house so that we can achieve the worthy goal of building a road or an airport; we pay her for it. Similarly, landowners should at least be compensated when restrictions are placed on the use of their property in the name of protecting a wildlife species.
If we pay people to take care of species rather than punish them by taking their land and livelihoods, we will be more likely to achieve the laudable goals of the ESA and begin to remove species from the list rather than add more each year. That would really be something to celebrate at the law's 40th anniversary.