End America’s 42-Year War On Wildlife

Brian Seasholes Policy Analyst, Reason
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Today marks the 42nd anniversary of America’s war on wildlife, otherwise known as the Endangered Species Act. It is high time to end the war. Beneath the Act’s feel-good image of protecting magnificent species like the bald eagle lies an ugly reality. The Endangered Species Act actually does enormous harm to the very species it is supposed to help, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Instead of rewarding landowners for harboring endangered species, the Endangered Species Act punishes them — to the tune of up to $100,000 fine and/or one year in jail for harming a species or even its habitat — by locking-up property harboring species and making otherwise legal forms of land use, such as farming, homebuilding and logging, illegal.

The results of the Endangered Species Act, as landowners seek to avoid the Act’s penalties, are sad but predictable. One need only visit endangered species country, especially “hot spots” — such as much of the Southeast, Pacific Northwest, and large parts of Texas and California — to witness the Endangered Species Act’s bitter harvest. Agricultural fields are not allowed to lie fallow, trees are cut on faster rotations, and brush is cleared in efforts to deny habitat to wildlife. Not only does endangered wildlife lose but so, too, do many other common species that depend on the same habitats. More species are constantly being listed under the Endangered Species Act, which means these problems are getting worse.

But the Endangered Species Act-caused war on wildlife is a quiet war, largely hidden and unknown to the urban majority of this country. They support helping endangered species but have no idea the Act is doing enormous harm by unfairly burdening rural Americans with the costs of protecting these species. The Endangered Species Act’s penalty-based approach is especially unfortunate because most landowners are sound stewards and take great pride conserving their land and natural resources.

Even the Endangered Species Act’s staunchest supporters acknowledge the Act is counterproductive. “There is, however, increasing evidence that at least some private landowners are actively managing their land so as avoid potential endangered species problems…Now it’s important to recognize that all of these actions that landowners are either taking or threatening to take are not the result of malice toward the red-cockaded woodpecker, not the result of malice toward the environment,” stated Michael Bean, then with the Environmental Defense Fund, currently with the Interior Department, and one of the leading authorities on the Endangered Species Act.  “Rather, they’re fairly rational decisions motivated by a desire to avoid potentially significant economic constraints.  In short, they’re really nothing more than a predictable response to the familiar perverse incentives that sometimes accompany regulatory programs.”

The Endangered Species Act’s penalty-based approach is especially damaging because private lands and landowners are the linchpin for successful endangered species conservation for a number of reasons. First, nearly 80 percent of endangered species rely on private land for some or their entire habitat, compared to 50 percent for federal land. Second, data on the vast majority of endangered species is lousy, especially the precise size and distribution of species’ populations over time, so access to private lands is key to improving data quality. Third, according to recent research 84 percent of endangered species are “conservation-reliant”, which means they will depend indefinitely human help to assure their continued survival. Fourth, endangered species’ population levels often change considerably over time and space so constant monitoring is essential.

Private landowners are ideally situated to conserve and monitor endangered species because they are spread across the landscape, present 24/7, 365 days a year, have detailed knowledge of their property and the wildlife that inhabits it, possess a strong attachment to the land and are deeply committed to its conservation, and are, by profession, land and resource managers.

Given these reasons, common sense dictates that if you want endangered species and their habitat conserved, you reward it.  At the very least, you don’t punish people for doing so. But the Endangered Species Act is where common sense goes to die.

Over the past couple decades, in response to harm to species caused by the Endangered Species Act, advocates of the Act have devised a host of reforms and incentives that do very little to fix the Act’s anti-conservation nature. At best, these reforms merely put a velvet glove over the Act’s iron fist. The central problem with the Endangered Species Act is not that it needs updating or lacks incentives but rather its massive and overwhelming disincentives to conserve species.

“The fear generated by ESA regulation is a poor motivator for species conservation on private lands,” according to Dwayne Elmore of Oklahoma State University, and Terry Messmer and Mark Brunson of Utah Sate University. “Rather, incentive-based approaches that consider the needs of landowners are more likely to result in species conservation over the long term.”

The Endangered Species Act’s penalty-based approach is so fundamentally flawed the law cannot be reformed if the goal is successful species conservation. An entirely new approach is necessary.

Fortunately, there is a highly successful “new” approach hidden in plain sight, which exists in every state and has been around for over 100 years. It’s known as cooperative extension, or simply extension, and it provides technical assistance and cost sharing to help landowners improve the health and productivity of their lands. Cooperative extension is the ideal model for conservation because it is incentive-based, which makes it very effective and popular with landowners. Cooperative extension depends on gaining the willing cooperation of landowners rather than opposing them with compulsion.

The wisdom of an extension-based approach is readily apparent to some who have experience with it and the Endangered Species Act. Mollie Beattie, while Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1990s compared a cooperative extension initiative (U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program) with the Endangered Species Act. “I think this really, really opened people’s eyes to what could be achieved in a basically non-regulatory, voluntary program,” Beattie stated. “If there were an incentive to make the best habitat [for endangered species], we’d be miles ahead.”

In addition, a number of surveys carried out by academics over the past ten years, which assess the factors that encourage and discourage private landowners to conserve endangered species, provide powerful evidence for a new, extension-based approach. These surveys found most landowners have significant concerns about risks to their property values and livelihoods due to the presence of endangered species, have a strong sense of stewardship, think they should be compensated for conserving endangered species, prefer 5-20 year contracts to conserve endangered species and strongly dislike permanent deals such as perpetual conservation easements, and highly value independence and autonomy—including that they strongly prefer to have some management and decision-making authority if they are involved in initiatives to conserve species and very much object when they do not. These surveys point 180 degrees away from the Endangered Species Act’s penalty-based approach and directly towards an incentive-based approach that looks like cooperative extension.

“Cooperative Extension is an ideal facilitator for volatile wildlife issues such as endangered species management on private lands,” Dwayne Elmore of Oklahoma State University observes. “Often, lack of trust in government agencies or fear of Endangered Species Act regulations hinders conservation efforts on these private lands. Extension personnel have close ties to local affected communities and thus can be instrumental in educating landowners regarding options that may be available to them in regards to sensitive, candidate, threatened, or endangered species.”

The Endangered Species Act is a tragedy because its penalty-based approach is so unnecessary and harmful, cooperative extension offers a very viable alternative, and America’s landowners are willing to conserve this country’s land, water and wildlife so long as they are not punished for doing so.

Often the key to a better future is learning from past mistakes. It is time to admit the Endangered Species Act’s penalty-based approach is a mistake, end this country’s senseless 42-year war on its most vulnerable species and chart a new, successful course for endangered species conservation based on a new approach that has been around for a long time.