Planet Gore

Celebrate the Endangered Species Act with a funeral dirge not carnival music

Last Friday, May 18, was the second annual Endangered Species Day, as declared by the U.S. Senate — a day to celebrate the Endangered Species Act. Where I come from, we celebrate successes, not failures, yet the Senate seems determined to continue to attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The ESA has been a spectacular, if underreported, failure. For instance, since 1973, only 1,832 species have been listed as either endangered — which means that the population is in danger of extinction — or threatened — which means their numbers are declining and the species is likely to become endangered.
Only 40 of the listed populations were delisted by the end of 2004. Even when the delistings are considered “successes,” they account for only 2 percent of the species listed under this three decades old legislation. A more careful examination of the facts shows that even 2 percent is far too optimistic. Of the 40 species delisted:

  • 9 were delisted due to extinction.
  • 16 were delisted because of “data errors” — they either were undercounted when added to the list or were later determined not to be distinct species (or subspecies).
  • 3 were decimated by a pesticide, DDT, and recovered largely due to the 1972 DDT ban. 
  • 12 remaining species were conserved by state agencies or private organizations, or were foreign species conserved by foreign governments under their own laws — the federal government contributed very little to the recovery of any of these species.

None of the 40 species was delisted after successful recovery attributable to ESA protection.
Despite this record, environmentalists have opposed substantial reforms of the act because the reforms most likely to work, protecting the property rights of those who own the habitat where endangered and threatened species thrive, will decentralize power, removing it from D.C, and thus lessening environmental lobbyists influence. That the act is really about controlling land use, not protecting species, is evidenced by the fact that environmentalists continue to fight to keep species on the list, long after they have ceased to be threatened or endangered. My colleague at the NCPA, Brian Seasholes, recently wrote about this.
Rather than letting the delisting of charismatic species like the grizzly bear, the grey wolf, and the bald eagle go forward, and thus be touted as public successes — great advertising — for the success of the act, environmentalists sue or threaten to sue, each time a proposal for delisting goes forward. Evidently, these species are better as leverage for land use control, than as public relations tools for the ESA.

H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and education institute in Dallas, Texas. While he works ...