How to Fix the Endangered Species Act

Published April 6, 2005

Who among us does not love warm fuzzy mammals? Some of us even like slimy reptiles and insects, and we all love critters who take to the air or swim in the sea.

On average, humans are natural-born animal-lovers, and we quite naturally want to do what we can to protect them and their habitat. Alas, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has never been an effective way to do that.

Using the ESA, the federal government tried to protect endangered species in its usual “command and control” manner, punishing people who discovered their land harbored a rare and vulnerable animal by imposing restrictions on how the land could be used. Under the ESA, most folks are better off looking the other way–or worse, finding ways to make the endangered species leave or “disappear.”

The ESA is popular with radical environmental activists not because it actually protects animals, but because it allows the activists to sue landowners and government agencies to stop development. The results, intended or otherwise, are unjust violations of private property rights, interference with science-based listing of species, obstruction of worthwhile projects, lost access to valuable resources, dangerous mismanagement of government-owned land, and economic hardship for rural America.

Help, thankfully, could be on the way.

The Property Rights Foundation of America, under the leadership of President Carole W. LaGrasse, has worked diligently for more than a decade to protect individual freedom against the excesses of environmental activists and rogue government agencies. The foundation has developed a reasonable alternative to the ESA that the public will accept. Its recommendations are as follows:

  • Listings of endangered and threatened species should be based solely on independent, peer-reviewed science, conducted by independent scientists not in the employ of either the government or environmental activist organizations. DNA analysis–not just the color of fur or feathers–should be required for recognition of separate species.
  • All habitat designated for protection of endangered or threatened species should be reviewed by independent scientists to ensure its quality. Government-owned land should always be favored. Efforts to overlap protected habitat for multiple species should be made.
  • All current protected habitat should be inventoried before any new habitat is designated.
  • Restrictions on the use of private property for protection of habitat for endangered species should be compensated. Compensation for regulatory takings for endangered species habitat should equal the reduction in fair market value of the affected property.
  • A Private Property Rights Ombudsman should be established in the U.S. Department of Interior to represent the interest of property owners.
  • Citizens should be allowed to volunteer land for habitat reserves as well as bid on the right to operate such a reserve with appropriate lease compensation.
  • The federal Endangered Species Act should be restructured to supersede all state and local endangered, threatened, and rare species protections on private property.

If the nation’s Founding Fathers were here today, they would include all these provisions in any legislation proposed to protect endangered wildlife. Proof of this is the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution: “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”

Animal lovers and freedom lovers should not be divided over the best way to protect animals without endangering individual liberty. For the sake of animals and property owners everywhere, let’s have the courage to follow LaGrasse’s lead.

Dr. Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is editor of science reference books including McGraw-Hill’s Standard Handbook of Environmental Science, Health, and Technology, and science director for The Heartland Institute.