ESA — As Useful as a Screaming Caterpillar

The Economist indicts the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as “unwieldy,” laden with perverse incentives, unnecessary, and designed to grow out of control.

When the Endangered Species Act was signed in 1973, it was expected to protect charismatic fauna such as the bald eagle and Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. These days it covers such obscure life-forms as the Stock Island tree snail, the Banbury Springs limpet and the triple-ribbed milk-vetch, along with 1,348 other animals and plants. In the absence of other powerful laws, it has become the chief weapon of environmentalists—and the bane of landowners and property-rights activists.

The act’s most powerful tool is the power to designate “critical habitats”, in which development, farming and mining are greatly restricted. The designation of much of Oregon as a critical habitat for the northern spotted owl in 1992 led to restrictions on logging and the loss of some 10,000 jobs…

Some say the law isn’t very useful. Damien Schiff of the Pacific Legal Foundation notes that few species come off the threatened or endangered list—just 47 since 1973, the majority because they became extinct or were found thriving elsewhere. Some celebrated recoveries, like that of the bald eagle, occurred largely thanks to the banning of the insecticide DDT, rather than to the act. Worse, the law may actually speed up extinctions. Farmers have an incentive to destroy protected species before the biologists find them—a practice known as “shoot, shovel and shut up”.

To most sensible observers, “shoot, shovel and shut up” would be evidence of perverse incentives that render the law unworkable — but not to the ESA’s more fanatical supporters. “To the act’s supporters, all this suggests that the law needs only to be enforced more strongly,” notes The Economist. By that reasoning, any square peg could be fit into a round hole if you only try to force it in hard enough! (Regarding the banning of DDT, the U.S. being able to do without it says nothing about developing countries’ need for it to control malaria.)

If they truly believe that enforcement of the law as it exists now is key, ESA supporters may not be happy until property owners routinely face the kind of penalties that Homer Simpson faced when he tried to kill a screaming caterpillar that claims his backyard as habitat (though in the show the caterpillar was protected under something called the “1994 Rollback of Freedoms Act”). But for the ESA’s awful human toll, we don’t have to rely on “The Simpsons” to illustrate; the costs are not only real but evident — just check out the episode of Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit” on the ESA (featuring CEI Adjunct Fellow R.J. Smith), in which hosts Penn Jillette and Teller

meet activists on all sides – from passionate believers who’ll do anything to enforce the ESA, to a strong-willed, good-natured lady in a wheelchair who’s homeless. The ESA won’t let her build on her suburban lot in a neighborhood surrounded by houses and within rock throwing distance of a WalMart Supercenter!