The Politics of Protection

The battles over the Endangered Species Act are all too human.


Wolves are notoriously slow to hire lobbyists. Lichen doubly so. It's no surprise, then, that the Endangered Species Act is a law written by humans and used for human ends. Ever since the act's 1973 debut, supporters and opponents have accused each other of playing politics with the fates of nearly extinct plants and animals. To be fair, both sides are usually right. In Listed, conservation biologist Joe Roman recounts the uses and abuses of a well-intentioned but all-too-human law.

The difficulty of getting off the list of endangered species ranks right up there with unsubscribing from the Pottery Barn catalog. In the past four decades only 22 species—out of nearly 2,000 on the list—have been declared recovered, with several of the recoveries (including the bald eagle's) chalked up to the federal ban on DDT. Although more than half the listed populations have remained stable or improved, once you're on the list you're usually on it for good—and enjoying protections that include bans on trafficking and on "taking"—harming, wounding or killing—as well as protection from any action by a federal agency that might mess up your home turf.

Wolves are the exception: Yesterday, President Barack Obama swiftly and unceremoniously booted the wolves of the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes off the list. Humans have strong feelings about wolves—probably because, as predators, they have been one of our major rivals for ungulate calories over the millennia—and government officials are no exception.

The Bureau of Biological Survey, a precursor to the Fish and Wildlife Service, was established in 1905 with the explicit mission of hunting down the last of the wolves in the west. The hunters did a good job, too. Park rangers killed the last two wolves in 1926. Half a century later, with the Endangered Species Act in place, western gray wolves made the list. Though they were by then essentially unknown in the U.S., Canadian populations had fared better. In 1995, a cluster of adolescent wolves was flown into Yellowstone National Park from Canada and introduced into the wild.

To gain approval of the wolf project, the environmental nonprofit group Defenders of Wildlife developed a scheme to compensate ranchers on Yellowstone's borders for raids on livestock. Mostly, though, the wolves have been content to hunt within the park, with gratifying results. The park's elk, for instance, are now fewer, relieving pressure on vegetation near watering holes and slowing erosion. Meanwhile, tourists eager to get a glimpse of Fido's distant relatives contribute $35 million in annual revenue.

Yellowstone's wolf population has inevitably grown—an estimated 1,700 wolves range through the park's 3,472 square miles. As their numbers have swelled, so have their incidents of livestock poaching. Two weeks ahead of Mr. Obama's move, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho had tacked a few lines onto a budget bill, and just like that the 1,200 wolves within their states were no longer protected by the Endangered Species Act. Sen. Tester called it "a win for rural America, for jobs, and for our wildlife—and it's what's right for the wolves themselves." Limited wolf hunts are scheduled to begin in the fall.

That was the first time Congress had directly intervened in the listing of a particular animal, prompting complaints about interference from business interests and their legislative henchmen. (Mr. Obama's decision to delist the whole species may have been an effort to take back executive control of the process.) But one of the first battles over the law ended nearly identically in 1979, with a congressional amendment tacked onto an unrelated bill. The action allowed construction on the Tellico Dam in Tennessee to proceed, stopping up the Little Tennessee River and destroying the home of a newly discovered species of fish, the snail darter.

Mr. Roman notes that Chief Justice Warren Burger, during oral arguments over the fate of the darter, said of the environmentalists defending the fish: "I'm sure that they just don't want this project. The snail darter was discovered and became a handy handle to hold onto." Mr. Roman goes on: "He was right, of course. It was much more than the fish. It was the valley's farmers, it was the fishermen, it was the descendants of the ancient Cherokee." Humans, humans, everywhere.

At the heart of most of the endangered-species battles is that most human of inventions: money. Early versions of the Endangered Species Act insisted that money be no obstacle in the preservation of species, but later amendments allowed the government to take the losses to government and private landowners into account when protecting habitat areas. With an estimated 80% of endangered species located on private land, most of the cost has been borne by individual citizens in the form of timber left unharvested, homes left unbuilt and fields unplowed—to say nothing of the legal fees incurred by owners who battle for the right to harvest, build or plow.

Mr. Roman's meandering and occasionally lyrical book is generally optimistic about the law he is chronicling, and he tends toward win-win tales. He tells us, for instance, about dunes along the Gulf Coast, left intact because they are favored by endangered mice, that turn out to be the only protection for the homes of human beings when Hurricane Ivan hits in 1994.

But the book takes an abrupt turn in its final pages. Mr. Roman offers a plan "to make extinction as unacceptable as slavery and child labor" and lists nine steps—he says he drew them up with biologist Paul R. Ehrlich and others. Mr. Ehrlich is most famous for predicting, in The Population Bomb (1968), that overpopulation would cause mass starvation. It is his cold voice, not Mr. Roman's friendly one, that leaps off the page: "Stabilizing the human population, even humanely reducing it, will improve the lives of people and wildlife." How the world's population will be "humanely" reduced isn't explained. Suddenly it's man vs. beast all over again—with man defecting to the other side.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on May 5, 2011.