When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently rejected a petition to list the prairie dog as an endangered species, twelve million prairie dogs must have heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Why a 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 thirty species have been removed from a list of thousands since the act was passed in 1973. Of these, seven were removed because they went extinct and eleven because additional data showed they were not really endangered in the first place. The remaining twelve 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.
Landowners v. 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 (RCW), 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 RCWs, he started cutting his trees at forty years of age instead of eighty, thus eliminating the old-growth trees in which RCWs might live.
Environmentalists contend that such cases are isolated acts carried out by lawbreakers, but a study in Political Environmentalism (Hoover Institution Press) 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 seventy years if there are no RCW colonies nearby to almost half that if there are twenty-five colonies within twenty-five miles of the logging site. They conclude that their "finding validates the concerns of some environmentalists who have noted that RCW 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.