Commentary: Reforming the Endangered Species Act

Published July 1, 1999

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a wonderfully idealistic law apparently written by people who had absolutely no idea how society works. Few could disagree with the law’s noble and uplifting goals. Yet the law’s means for achieving those goals are doomed to failure.

Debate over the act has focused on the apparent conflict between environmental values and property rights. This is the wrong debate. The real problem with the Endangered Species Act is not that it conflicts with the rights of property owners or costs some people their jobs. The real problem is that it is not saving species.

At least a dozen U.S. species have gone extinct since the act was passed in 1973. The act has unambiguously saved only two species–all other “recovered” species were either never really in danger or would have recovered without the act.

The Utah prairie dog is one of the two species saved by the act. For decades, this animal was the target of a vicious poisoning campaign by the federal government. In fact, the agency most responsible for killing the prairie dog was the Fish and Wildlife Service–which is also the agency charged with protecting most endangered species. When the Fish and Wildlife Service found that Utah prairie dogs were in danger, it stopped poisoning them, and the species quickly recovered.

The Utah prairie dog is typical of most species listed as threatened or endangered, in that it was endangered more by federal subsidies and programs than by private landowners. It is atypical in that the Endangered Species Act actually led the federal government to stop harming the species.

In the vast majority of cases, the federal government continues to pursue activities harmful to species long after they are listed as endangered. For example, the black-footed ferret has been known as “North America’s most endangered mammal” since before the act was passed. The principal component in the diet of this weasel-like creature is the western prairie dog.

Like the Utah variety, western prairie dogs have been massively poisoned by federal agents. It is an axiom of ecology that, when you try to eliminate a prey species, the predator disappears first. And so it is with the ferret: Once numbering in the millions, by 1985 only ten black-footed ferrets were known to exist.

The Fish and Wildlife Service captured those ferrets and has successfully bred them in captivity. But it has almost no place to release those ferrets in the wild. Even though the ferret was one of the first species ever to be listed as “endangered,” federal agencies such as the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and even the Park Service have continued to poison prairie dogs throughout the West. Today, a major obstacle to recovering the black-footed ferret is private property owners who fear government regulation if ferrets are reintroduced on or near their land.

One-fourth of all listed species are found exclusively on private land, and two-thirds find the vast majority of their habitat on private land. So we need the cooperation, not hostility, of private landowners to protect species. But since everyone benefits from protecting species, it is unfair to expect a few private landowners to pay most of the costs of species recovery.

Instead of fighting over a law that does not work, environmentalists should work with property owners to write a new law that protects species by addressing the true causes of species decline: perverse incentives in the law, and harmful federal subsidies. Five reforms should be included in the new law:

  • Create a biodiversity trust fund that would give landowners and managers incentives to protect endangered species habitat. A board of trustees consisting of ecologists and conservation biologists appointed by the Secretary of the Interior would manage the fund, buying land or conservation easements, paying people to use or avoid certain practices, or even paying “bounties” to landowners whose land provides habitat for a particular species. The two proposals that follow would provide nearly a billion dollars per year for the fund.
  • Turn the Endangered Species Act into a subsidies killer by creating a “budget squad” that would have the power to impound federal subsidies it finds harmful to listed species. A fifth of the impounded funds would go into the biodiversity trust fund, another fifth to compensate workers whose jobs depended on the subsidies, while the rest would be dedicated to paying off the national debt.
  • Reform the Forest Service and other federal land agencies by allowing land managers to charge fair market value for recreation and other resources, and fund managers out of their net income, rather than out of tax dollars. This could nearly triple public land revenues. Dedicating a fifth of these revenues to the biodiversity fund would give public land managers incentives to cooperate with species recovery efforts–incentives that do not exist today.
  • Experiment with wildlife property rights by allowing private groups more control over wildlife on private land, even to the extent of owning individual animals or possibly entire species. Such experiments could lead to innovative techniques for saving species and habitat, yet current laws discourage or prohibit such innovations.
  • Eliminate regulation of private land, which hasn’t worked very well and sometimes does more harm than good. If the ESA is reformed to attack the real causes of species decline–federal subsidies and destructive government policies–we can save more species without regulation.

No one wants to see species go extinct. Nor does anyone want to give up their fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech or freedom to own property without fear it will be taken away. Fortunately, it turns out that protecting people’s rights, not taking them away, is the best way to save endangered species.

Randal O’Toole is the senior economist with the Thoreau Institute ( in Bandon, Oregon. He can be reached by email at [email protected].