The federal government has spent hundreds of millions in taxpayer money to protect species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that were never in danger of extinction, according to a Heritage Foundation report.
Robert Gordon, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Free Markets and Regulatory Reform, studied the Endangered Species Act and the federal bureaus in charge of administering and regulating it. Gordon released his report, which focuses on inconsistencies and waste in the listing and de-listing of species, Tuesday.
Former-President Richard Nixon signed the ESA into law in 1973, following the president’s push for stronger environmental protections the previous year. Nixon charged his “environmental awakening” for stronger environmental regulation in areas such as sewage, air and noise just two years after the Environmental Protection Agency’s founding.
Since the ESA’s enactment, 1,661 U.S. plants and animals have qualified for federal protection as either “threatened” or “endangered” — or close to extinction. Forty-five years later, slightly more than two percent, or 38 species, have been officially de-listed as “recovered.” About half of the officially “recovered” species where never actually in danger of extinction but placed on the list because of bad or missing data or taxonomic — the way animals are classified into species and subspecies, errors — according to Gordon.
The “deceitful” practice of inflating the ESA’s success has perpetuated a host of other problems, “distorting the most important measure of the program.”
“It also triggers other mandatory actions further wasting taxpayer dollars, serves as a justification for the adoption of more restrictive land management practices by other agencies, obscures significant problems with the data used to justify listing species, and erodes the overall credibility of both the Service and the program,” Gordon wrote.
Often when conducting preliminary research often serving to justify whether a species is listed or not, federal researchers miscount the actual number of animals in a population or species and reach a conclusion regularly off by a factor of 10 — sometimes more.
Early studies of the plant, Johnston’s frankenia, turned up five populations of about 1,000 members each. The plant was listed. Later studies revealed the plant was much more widespread, estimating first 4 million then 9 million of the plants in existence.
Listing species also places stiff, sometimes unnecessary, regulatory penalties on people trying to develop on land deemed important or critical to the species survival.
A developer trying to build homes on an island in Lake Erie was forced to deal with regulations the FWS put in place to protect the Lake Erie water snake, which the FWS undercounted by nearly a factor of four. To meet the ESA standards, the developer had to build two places for snakes to hibernate near each house.
The FWS also required a homeowners association be established and management of five acres of land be donated to through easements to a nonprofit conservation organization.
Paperwork alone can run costs into the tens of thousands of dollars before plans are designed, programs carried out, and court cases fought and settled, according to Gordon.