Endangered Species Act Deserves Extinction

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Law

One dark night, a few miles from where I live, somebody took an axe and chopped down a tree. The tree contained a nest of bald eagles, making the chief suspect the owner herself.

Confused over why somebody blessed with a pair of such majestic birds would intentionally destroy their home? Obviously you don’t understand the workings of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Under the ESA, if an endangered species — including the bald eagle at the time of the chopping — makes a home on your property, the government restricts the uses you can make of it. It will not compensate you for this, no matter how onerous the restriction.

In the aforementioned case, the nest appeared on the property of a woman who only owned a few acres and wished to sub-divide them for houses. When the eagle nest appeared it effectively wiped out her nest egg.

Hence the ESA provided her — and Americans everywhere — what is called a perverse incentive. Rather than encouraging the protection of endangered species, it encourages what has become so common as to have acquired a special name: shoot, shovel, and shut up.

Often savvy people don’t wait until the species appears, instead destroying habitat that lends itself to being settled in by something endangered.

Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund notes that, "Because the [endangered red-cockaded] woodpecker primarily uses older trees for both nesting and foraging, some landowners are deliberately harvesting their trees before they reach sufficient age to attract woodpeckers . . . " This they do even though the trees had not yet reached their full value.

There is good evidence that numerous other endangered species, including the now-famous northern spotted owl, are having potential habitats destroyed by what the Fish and Wildlife Service calls "panic cutting."

In 1999, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list. They now make up almost a third of the clientele of the Hair Club for Birds.

Of course, many people don’t destroy the habitats on their land and don’t destroy the endangered species. For these decent folk, the reward is to have their private property infringed for the good of all of the rest of us.

Still, say many environmentalists, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The ESA works."

Or does it?

A case-by-case analysis reveals that each of the few species taken off the list (numbering about 950 American species and 525 in other countries) was removed for reasons having nothing to do with the ESA. Often they began recovering long before the ESA was even passed in 1973.

When the bald eagle was downlisted this year to threatened, ESA advocates immediately took sweeping bows. But eagles first received federal protection in 1940 when Congress made it a crime to harm bald eagles. In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT, which many scientists believe is harmful to eagles and other predator birds.

Why is this gray whale smiling? Because he knows the bureaucrats and activists are fibbing about why his species recovered.

The delisting of the gray whale in 1993 was another heralded success of the ESA, but the gray whale began recovering around the turn of the century when whaling fell off.

The ESA is broke and does need fixing, which is why several bills to revamp it have been or shortly will be introduced into Congress this year.

But to really make a difference, a new ESA must not only stop punishing people for becoming an accidental host to an endangered species but actually start rewarding them for doing so.

This means, first, an end to regulating land used by an endangered species. If the federal government or any private conservation group wants to protect the species, it can purchase that right while leaving the land in the hands of the owner. The government can also use financial incentives to build endangered-species habitats. This is a key component of pending legislation from Rep. John Shadegg (R.-Ariz.).

New legislation also must encourage people to keep endangered species in captivity. Currently people have to jump through myriad paperwork hoops to do so.

"It’s getting awfully crowded
here in South Africa!"

There is no shortage today of the once nearly-extinct American bison (buffalo), precisely because there are economic incentives to husband these animals. Even while elephant populations dwindle in the rest of Africa due in part to the demand for ivory, in South Africa their numbers are steadily increasing because their ivory and other body parts are harvested.

You’d better believe that if northern spotted owls proved to be tasty and low-fat, Tyson Foods would make them as common as broiler hens.

Yet non-consumable species also have an economic value precisely because they are endangered. Conservation groups will pay for their upkeep just as various hunting groups such as Ducks Unlimited pay to preserve animals and habitats.

Federal conservation prohibitions should be limited to forbidding killing or injuring a listed species, with the exception of uses that create incentives to raise the animals.

Many environmentalists don’t want to replace punishment with incentives, because this puts the burden on the taxpayer and conservation groups instead of the poor schlep unlucky enough to have a golden-cheeked warbler set up house on his property. Yes, this would make the ESA part of the budget process and force tough decisions on what species are really important enough to be preserved.

But that’s as it should be. No law can save all endangered species. If we must choose the black-footed ferret over the Coffin Cave mold beetle, so be it. Better to ensure the survival of the species we really value than to see them all shot and shoveled in the name of a very good idea that proved to have very bad consequences.