The fate of many endangered species is in the hands of private property owners. By maintaining habitat for rare species, landholders are providing a public service, and the best way to encourage landholders to protect these species is to ensure that they are compensated rather than penalized for this service.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed by Congress and signed by President Nixon in 1973, established lists of endangered and threatened species and prohibited the killing or harming of them and their habitat.
Measured by any reasonable standard, the ESA has failed. In the past three decades many more species have been added to the list than have been removed. Even if we count all of the species removed from the list as "successes," they account for only 3.5 percent of the species recorded since 1973. According to the General Accounting Office, most species are closer to extinction now than when they were originally listed.
The first step toward reforming the ESA should be to moderate the damage that the current act inflicts on private landowners. Nearly 80 percent of listed species depend on private land for all or part of their habitat requirements. Yet if landholders provide suitable habitat for an endangered species, they run the risk of their property being subject to severe government regulations, many of which constrain land from being used profitably. An unintended consequence of the ESA is that it effectively creates perverse incentives for landowners to destroy species and their habitat—the "shoot, shovel, and shut up" syndrome.
Some environmental leaders recognize the problem. Michael Bean, an attorney for Environmental Defense who is often credited with authorship of the ESA, acknowledged that there is "increasing evidence that at least some private landowners are actively managing their land so as to avoid potential endangered species problems." He emphasized that these actions are "not the result of malice toward the environment" but "fairly rational decisions, motivated by a desire to avoid potentially significant economic constraints."
Cases of preemptive habitat destruction have become notorious. For instance, as the golden-cheeked warbler was about to be added to the endangered species list, a firm that owned hundreds of acres of warbler habitat hired workers to chainsaw the entire stand of oak and juniper trees, thus preserving its investment by eliminating the birds' habitat.
For wildlife conservation to be successful, negative restrictions on landowners must be replaced with positive incentives, such as those in Texas's Landowner Incentive Program. Under the tenets of this state-initiated program, landholders voluntarily enter into a contract to perform measurable actions (such as restoring native vegetation or performing controlled burns) with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Biologists are allowed on the property to monitor progress, and landowners are paid on the basis of meeting the contract's objectives. Grants of up to $10,000 are available to property owners who actively manage their land for rare species.
As Aldo Leopold explained nearly seventy years ago, "conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest." For more on the importance of protecting private property rights, see Property Rights: A Practical Guide to Freedom and Prosperity (Hoover Press 2003).