- The government’s estimated and actual costs of the Endangered Species Act are often erroneous and never comprehensive, a report shows.
- Bureaucratic costs, court fees and species recovery plans on the part of state and federal governments are difficult to predict and often lead to large, unforeseen costs on American taxpayers.
- The “lion’s share” of costs, and the hardest to calculate, come from heavy restrictions in endangered species’s areas that shut down development at “whatever the cost,” the report said.
Federal estimates for the cost of protecting endangered species are likely much lower than the actual expense in real dollars, according to a Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) report published Thursday.
And most estimates don’t include the revenue lost from closing land endangered species occupy, which could otherwise be used for pipeline construction or farming, the report said.
Bureaucratic processes, court fees and the cost of species recovery plans under the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars every year. The largest toll the ESA exacts on Americans, though, is the hidden costs of losing the productive projects that would otherwise take place on land near or deemed necessary for ESA-listed species, CEI adjunct fellow and ESA expert Robert Gordon wrote in the study.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that Congress passed the ESA to prevent and reverse the decline of threatened or endangered species at “whatever the cost,” giving federal agencies broad power to block projects such as dams, logging and pipelines.
“‘Whatever’ is hardly a standard that encourages fiscal responsibility, and as any bureaucrat knows, unquantified costs cannot be used as a yardstick to judge the effectiveness of a program,” Gordon wrote. “Four decades later, ‘whatever the cost’ is, it is far greater than generally recognized, and the ultimate price of the program easily reaches up into the tens and more likely hundreds of billions of dollars.”
A single listing under the ESA costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars between conducting early studies of the species’s health to publishing a final rule in the Federal Register. The federal government spends about $800,000 if the process plays out smoothly without the need for repeated studies, especially as a result of litigation.
In 2016 — the most recent year for which annual costs are available — federal agencies and state governments spent roughly $1.5 billion on ESA goals, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Some of the costs marked down in the FWS report raise questions over the report’s accuracy, Gordon points out. For example, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) spent a total of $1.1 million on one species in 2016.
The year before, the USFS spent $140 million on 150 species, a broad swing for which the FWS report provides no explanation. Also missing from the 2016 report, 21 states, including western states such as Texas and California that contain many ESA-listed species, did not report any expenses from ESA-related activities in 2016.
“Cost of recovery” estimates, or the amount of money the government is expected to spend to mark an ESA-listed species as recovered, are vague and incomplete if they are reported at all, according to Gordon. Many estimates may be hundreds of billions of dollars short.
The FWS estimated that recovery for about 500 listed species would cost more than $9 billion, according to the agency’s latest fiscal report to Congress.
A single recovery plan for five species — two animals and three plants — estimated that the total cost of recovery would hit over $1.2 billion by 2063 without including funds to “acquire/protect currently unprotected habitat,” according to Gordon.
The recovery plan for the Iowa Pleistocene Snail estimated that the snail’s recovery would cost $84,000 from fiscal years 1984-1987. Later reports on the snail’s condition suggest the estimate was too low by a factor of ten, despite that new colonies of hundreds of thousands of snails were found. (RELATED: Report: Feds Are Wasting Billions Protecting ‘Endangered’ Animals That Are Just Fine)
While accurate government reporting on the costs of the ESA is spotty at best, the “lion’s share” of ESA costs are imposed on landowners and state governments via the law’s prohibition against ‘take’ and designations of “critical habitat,” the primary regulatory tools of the ESA, according to Gordon.
“There is no reliable tracking of these costs,” Gordon wrote.
The ESA’s prohibition on “take” is broadly defined and liberally enforced, according to Gordon’s report. The FWS defines “take” as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect” any species listed under the ESA. The vast majority of actions fall into one of more of these categories, especially to “harass” or “harm.”
Congress originally intended the “take” provision to apply only to those species in dire circumstances. Shortly after the ESA was passed, the FWS extended the prohibition to every species listed on the ESA. The Trump administration has proposed rolling back the regulation to fit in more closely with Congress’ original intent of the law.
Unlike when listing a species under the ESA, the law allows regulators to consider the economic impact of “critical habitat” designations, or areas determined by the federal government to be necessary to a species’s survival. Regulators may decide against designating an area critical habitat if other potential benefits of using the land “outweigh” the benefit to the species.
Despite the law’s flexibility in critical habitat designations, the FWS and other federal agencies often evade economic arguments and claim that land should be recognized as critical habitat because existing regulations — usually from other ESA-listed species in the area — have already made the land worthless, Gordon wrote.
“There is a particularly specious argument that FWS has made on several occasions that requires special attention,” Gordon writes. “The agency has asserted that it is the prohibition against ‘take’ of an endangered or threatened animal — primarily the prohibition against ‘harm’ — not the subsequent designation of its critical habitat, that causes the economic impact. Consequently, the FWS has argued that a critical habitat designation has little additional economic impact.”
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