Endangering Species

Sunday, July 30, 2000

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently rejected a petition to list the prairie dog as an endangered species, 12 million prairie dogs must have heaved a collective sigh of relief.

Why of relief, you ask. After all, isn’t listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) supposed to protect species from extinction?

The evidence suggests that it is not working. For example, statistics show that only 30 species have been removed from a list of thousands since the act was passed in 1973. Of these, 7 were removed because they went extinct and 11 because additional data showed they were not really endangered in the first place. The remaining 12 delisted species were either located outside the United States (and hence not affected by the ESA) or recovered for reasons unrelated to the ESA such as the banning of DDT.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.  

Landowners versus Endangered Species

Even worse than the dismal recovery rates is the fact that regulation under the ESA can actually exacerbate extinction. In an effort to protect endangered species, the ESA makes it illegal to "take" a listed species, meaning "to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct." In other words, if a landowner’s actions are interpreted as a "take," land uses may be strictly regulated. This might encourage landowners to "shoot, shovel, and shut up."

But landowners don’t have to go this far; they can take perfectly legal preemptive action to keep the species off private property. A famous North Carolina case shows how this worked with the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which lives in old-growth pines. After Ben Cone was prevented from harvesting 1,500 acres of his 7,200-acre property because it was home to red-cockaded woodpeckers, he started cutting his trees at 40 years of age instead of 80, thus eliminating the old-growth trees in which the woodpeckers might live.

Environmentalists contend that such cases are isolated acts carried out by lawbreakers, but a study in the new book Political Environmentalism shows systematic evidence to the contrary. Examining hundreds of logging operations in North Carolina, Dean Lueck and Jeffrey Michael find that the average age of harvest falls from nearly 60 years if there are no red-cockaded woodpecker colonies nearby to 36 years if there are 25 colonies within 25 miles of the logging site. They conclude that their "finding validates the concerns of some environmentalists who have noted that red-cockaded woodpecker populations have been declining on private land during the 28 years the red-cockaded woodpecker has been regulated by the ESA." In short, the ESA makes endangered species the enemy of landowners.

Compensation as a Solution

With the ESA up for renewal, it is time to consider using carrots rather than sticks to save species. If the federal government would spend a fraction of what it spends on ESA regulation to actually compensate landowners who provide habitat, we could be removing species from the list rather than adding bureaucrats to the federal payroll.