The Real Story Behind The Teddy Bear’s Conservation

Brian Seasholes Policy Analyst, Reason
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The “teddy bear” is coming off the endangered species list this week, and it’s being hailed as a great success story of cooperative, feel-good conservation under the Endangered Species Act. In reality, the story is far different.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Louisiana black bear — the namesake for the “teddy bear” because when President Teddy Roosevelt was on a hunting trip in in 1902 he refused to shoot a bear under what he thought were unsporting conditions — is a symbol of how the Endangered Species Act works through threats, intimidation and compulsion to gain landowners’ “voluntary” compliance. The “teddy bear” is a good example of Teddy Roosevelt-style conservation. Roosevelt was fond of saying his imperialist foreign policy was based on the motto “speak softly but carry a big stick” to intimidate and threaten countries to do the federal government’s bidding, and the same applies to the Endangered Species Act.

In a moment of candor, Murray Lloyd, co-founder of the Black Bear Conservation Coalition, a group started in 1990 to help the Louisiana black bear, admitted that the Endangered Species Act, “served effectively as a cocked two-by-four to keep everyone at the table” to negotiate a so-called voluntary agreement to conserve the bear. The agreement, a prototype Candidate Conservation Agreement, which try to prevent species from being listed, is one of a raft of purportedly landowner-friendly voluntary initiatives started during the Clinton administration and enthusiastically promoted by Democrats and Republicans since.

In reality, as Murray Lloyd reveals, Candidate Conservation Agreements and other similar initiatives rely on the threat of being clobbered by the Endangered Species Act to gain landowners’ so-called voluntary participation. Murray Lloyd even thinks the Black Bear Conservation Coalition is “a model for natural resource conflict resolution.” Most reasonable people would not consider participation gained through threats and intimidation to be voluntary.

It should not be surprising that the Endangered Species Act ultimately works through threats and intimidation, given the legislation’s enormous penalties — $100,000 and/or 1 year in jail for harming one bear or even its habitat — and enormous power, which allows it to halt otherwise normal and legal forms of land use, such as home building, timber harvest, and agriculture, as well as supersede just about any other law.

Furthermore, it should not be surprising that advocates of the Act see nothing wrong with this approach and even consider it a model to be admired. The problem is that advocates often dissemble by publicly talking a good game of making the ESA more landowner-friendly, while in unguarded moments acknowledging that they rely on threats and intimidation to administer the Act, especially keeping landowners in line.

Yet reliance on the Endangered Species Act’s punitive approach causes enormous harm to the very species the Act is supposed to protect because most species are found on private lands, and landowners try to avoid harboring species, most often by destroying habitat, but also by staying quiet in the hope regulatory authorities do not discover endangered species on their land, and by eliminating the species, otherwise known as “shoot, shovel, and shut-up.”

Window dressing reforms, such as Candidate Conservation Agreements, are implicit admissions that the Endangered Species Act’s punitive approach has failed. But while ESA supporters try to conceal the ugly reality of the harm caused by the Act’s massive disincentives to conserve species, such reforms are unlikely to make a substantial difference.

It is time for this country to shift away from Teddy Roosevelt “speak softly and carry a big stick” style-conservation. Were the Endangered Species Act’s penalties removed, species conservation would be much more successful, as countless landowners would feel free to protect species, including contacting state and federal wildlife officials about species on their land. There are a wide array of federal and state conservation programs, often known as agricultural extension, that are very successful and popular with landowners because they are cooperative, voluntary and incentive-based. The cornerstone of successful endangered species conservation needs to be built on enlisting the willing cooperation of landowners by not punishing them and offering incentives, technical assistance and the open hand of friendship.