Specious Species Act

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is one of the Endangered Species Act’s most aggressive apologists. In the face of almost three decades of abject failure to recover endangered and threatened species, Secretary Babbitt still proclaims that “the Endangered Species Act works.”

Since taking over the Interior Department, which administers the Act through the Fish and Wildlife Service, Babbitt has faced unprecedented criticism for the dictatorial way in which he has used the ESA to control land-use on public and private land. Babbitt is under fire for using the ESA more as a weapon against economic activity than as a shield to protect species. Babbitt can get away with this because the ESA imposes stringent federal land-use controls. Acknowledging the failure of the ESA would mean giving up the most potent method of federal land-use control ever enacted in this country.

Whether Babbitt and his green compatriots acknowledge it or not, the ESA has utterly failed to save imperiled species. The goal of the Act is to “recover” endangered and threatened species to the point that they no longer need the ESA’s protection. If the ESA is an emergency room for species at risk, the goal is to check them out of the hospital. Once a species is recovered, it is removed from the list of endangered and threatened species.

Well over 1,000 species have been declared threatened or endangered since the ESA was enacted in 1973. Since then, only 27 species have been removed from the list – 27 out of over 1,000. Of the 27, seven were delisted because they went extinct. The Interior Department acknowledges that an additional nine were “data errors” and never should have been listed in the first place. The remaining eleven are officially listed as recoveries, yet the ESA cannot be credited with saving a single one. These species either never deserved to be listed, or recovered due to things beyond the ESA’s control. Thus, in some 25 years, the ESA has failed to recover a single species.

Given this terrible track record, ESA apologists have been scrambling for a way to rehabilitate the Act. This explains Babbitt’s efforts to convince landowners that federal land-use regulations under the ESA really are not so bad, even if they don’t help species. Over the past four years, Babbitt has developed a series of reforms, including “safe harbor” programs, “no surprises” policies, and regional habitat conservation plans, all of which are supposed to make the ESA landowner friendly, but actually strengthen the federal government’s grip on undeveloped land.

On May 5, Babbitt made his greatest effort to date to defend the ESA when he announced that 34 species would soon be delisted. Babbitt proclaimed that “we can now finally prove one thing conclusively: The Endangered Species Act works, period.” If only it were so.

None of these 34 species are any more of a testament to the ESA’s success than the previous 27 that have been delisted. Five of these species have gone extinct. Twelve more are data errors that should never have been put on the list, and another is not elegible to be taken off the endangered list, Babbitt’s proclamation notwithstanding.

None of the remaining 16 owe their success exclusively to the ESA’s federal land-use controls. Three were helped by banning the pesticide DDT, but that occurred in 1972, one year before the ESA became law. Another eight are plants, which are only subject to land-use controls on public lands, not on private property. The remaining five did not require the ESA’s regulations for recovery, and were helped by more traditional conservation techniques, such as the purchase, as opposed to regulation, of critical habitat.

For the past six years, private property advocates have called for reform of the ESA to eliminate federal land-use controls on private land. For six years, ESA apologists have proclaimed that such a law would not protect endangered species. Yet the ESA has recovered no species on private lands, while penalizing private landowners for good stewardship. Given the abysmal record of the current law, a non-regulatory incentive-based ESA would be a great improvement.

Jonathan H. Adler ([email protected]) and Ike C. Sugg ([email protected]) are, respectively, CEI’s Director of Environmental Studies and Fellow in Wildlife and Land-Use Policy.