Big Tent Ideas

BONNER COHEN: This Landmark Conservation Bill Has Been An Abject Failure For Fifty Years

REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

Daily Caller News Foundation logo
Bonner Cohen Author, Fixing America’s Crumbling Underground Infrastructure
Font Size:

December 23, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by President Richard M. Nixon. The statute has put enormous power into the hands of bureaucrats at the two federal agencies that administer it – the Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). It has also been adroitly used by environmental groups who have sued the federal government under the ESA to stop projects not of their liking through the broadest possible designation of a “critical habitat” for a plant or animal said to be either threatened or endangered.

But on the ESA’s stated goal of “recovering” species at risk, the law has been a spectacular failure, according to a new report from the Western Caucus Foundation. The report, “The Endangered Species Act at 50,” was written by Robert Gordon. Active in environmental policy for over 30 years, Gordon has held many high-level positions, including senior advisor to the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, deputy assistant secretary of policy management at the Department of Interior, and senior advisor on endangered species for the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources.

“Unfortunately, at the half-century mark, with the listing of 1,667 species as threatened or endangered species, there are only 62 officially ‘recovered’ species” Gordon points out. “Of these, 36 – nearing 60% – are not real conservation ‘success stories.’ These ‘recoveries’ are hollow, as they are inaccurate proclamations attributable to an erroneous original determination that the species was endangered or threatened. The ESA’s poor showing is compounded by the fact that for some species that have been recovered, the recovery is not primarily or even substantially attributable to the ESA.”

“Scientific Integrity Problem”

Relying almost exclusively on the federal government’s own data, the report uncovers widespread dishonesty about what the public is told about the ESA:

  • “More than half of the 62 ‘recoveries’ are not legitimate and owe their delisting primarily to the use of erroneous data or analysis to list the species.
  • Disguising species added to the list as ‘recoveries’ has been a long-standing practice.
  • The same deception has occurred with many species that are proposed for delisting or that have been downlisted and claimed as evidence of ESA effectiveness.
  • USFWS ceased reporting other measurements (in its biannual Report to Congress) that could have provided an additional yardstick for measuring progress and, instead, substituted bureaucratic fluff.
  • The listing standards, the process, or both, have led to more than twice as many wrongly listed species as recovered species.
  • Continuously mislabeling species as ‘recovered’ reveals a scientific integrity problem in the implementation of the ESA.”

“These errors are not without consequence,” Gordon points out in the report. “Each mistake consumes money and time through required bureaucratic actions. Many of these mistakes remained on the List for decades and resulted in regulatory burdens and economic costs. Not only does misreporting these species as ‘recovered,’ hide the ESA’s true conservation record, but it also obscures that waste of conservation resources, and the economic impacts and regulatory burdens on private property owners were imposed on the basis of bad data. Officially proclaiming these errors as recoveries resulted in more waste than would have occurred if the species had been properly delisted on the grounds of original data error. The deceptive record hinders Congressional oversight and misrepresents the program to the public.”

The report points out that the mislabeling of species as “recovered” has been going on for decades. “As far back as 1988, the Government Accounting Office reported this regarding three birds found on the islands of Palau. GAO reported, “although officially designated as recovered, the [Palus owl, dove and flycatcher] owe their ‘recovery’ more to the discovery of additional birds than to successful recovery efforts.”

Gordon cites several recent cases in which FWS has been less than candid in its use of the term “recovery.’ One egregious example is the tiny Monito gecko, whose numbers were put as low as 18 by one survey, earning it a spot on the Endangered Species List. That survey, however, was taken during the day. It was later learned that the Monito gecko is nocturnal, and its estimated population was raised to 7,661. In 2019, the gecko was declared “recovered” by the FWS. (RELATED: BONNER COHEN: Elites Have Come Up With Their Greatest Excuse Yet To Suppress The Rest Of Us)

When listing the running buffalo clover in 1987, FWS reported that it was “one of the rarest members of the North American flora,” with just four known individual plants existing in one county, in one state. “By the time it was delisted as a ‘recovered species’ in 2021, 175 populations, in more than in more than 80 counties and in six states – with one population numbering more than 60,000 – had been found,” the report notes.

“Dismal Recovery Record”

The lessons to be drawn from the institutionalized deception practiced by ESA bureaucrats are clear.  

“Congressional oversight committees should take a hard look at the data and the science used in listings and delistings,” Gordon recommends. “This dismal recovery record further reinforces the need to modernize the Act so that it can be focused on effectively conserving legitimately threatened and endangered species.”

Bonner Russell Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.

All content created by the Daily Caller News Foundation, an independent and nonpartisan newswire service, is available without charge to any legitimate news publisher that can provide a large audience. All republished articles must include our logo, our reporter’s byline and their DCNF affiliation. For any questions about our guidelines or partnering with us, please contact