Saving Species or Saving Face?

On Point No. 9


On May 5, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt made a dramatic and much-publicized announcement which — he claimed — showed that the 1973 Endangered Species Act is working. Specifically, he announced that 34 listed species would be considered for delisting (i.e., removal from the list of threatened and endangered species). "Our new policy, to emphasize delisting, could alter the terms of debate over this landmark conservation law," proclaimed Babbitt. "For now we can finally prove one thing conclusively: The Endangered Species Act works. Period." If only it were so. A closer look at Babbitt's list shows a record of failure, not a record of success.

For the ESA to "work" it would have to "recover" listed species; that is the law's stated goal. That goal, as stated in the ESA, is "to bring any endangered species or threatened species to the point at which the measures provided pursuant to this Act are no longer necessary." When a species is "recovered" it is delisted. Yet, after almost 25 years of regulation, the ESA has failed to legitimately recover a single species.

Of the 34 species Babbitt proclaimed to be ESA successes, not one recovered because of the ESA. Indeed, the majority of these species either went extinct (5), are ineligible for delisting (1), or were not in trouble to begin with (12). The 16 remaining species have apparently improved, but not due to the ESA. The ESA had little, if anything, to do with the resurgence of these species.

Extinctions. Five of Babbitt's 34 purported "success stories" are species believed to be extinct: the Guam broadbill, Mariana mallard, and three species of Oahu tree snail. An Interior Department spokesman said it was "a mistake" to include these species "as proof the act works," according to the Chicago Tribune. Unfortunately, the Interior Department has circulated the misinformation much more widely than it has the correction.

Similarly, according to an FWS Regional Director, the Pahrump poolfish is not even eligible for delisting, because the species has not been reintroduced to its historic habitat. The species is thriving elsewhere, but will not meet the criteria for delisting until it is reintroduced and secured in its native habitat.

Data errors. Twelve of the 34 species that Babbitt has trumpeted are actually "data errors," which means they should not have been listed in the first place. In most such cases, additional surveys found that the species were too abundant to remain on the list. In other cases, research on the species revealed they are taxonomically indistinguishable from more common species. In either case, these data errors show that the ESA cannot be credited with recovering species that were already abundant. Babbitt's claim that these 12 species indicate the ESA "works" is false.

The remaining 16 species appear to have actually improved, as indicated below. However, it is important to recognize that none of the species improved because of anything unique to the 1973 ESA. These improvements are not the result of the ESA’s regulations.

DDT. Banning the pesticide DDT in 1972, rather than passing the ESA, was the major factor that helped three species rebound. The bald eagle, the American peregrine falcon, and the brown pelican were imperiled by DDT and its metabolite, DDE. DDT impaired the release of calcium from adult birds to their eggs, which caused the eggshells to be thin and subject to breakage. As a result, reproductive failures among these three species were widespread until the pesticide was banned. Afterward, the species steadily recovered.

Plants. Another eight of the so-called "successes" are plants, which are not covered by most of the ESA's regulations. One of these plants, the Loch Lomond coyote thistle, was helped by the California Department of Fish and Game, not the Interior Department. The state agency conserved the plant the constitutional way, by purchasing its habitat ($224,000 for 11.94 acres). The other plants were conserved on federal lands, not private lands. Because plants are not regulated as stringently as animals — and because they are much easier to propagate, control and manage — the only surprise here is that more plants are not recovering.

Animals. The five remaining species are animals, two of which exist exclusively on federal lands (the Island night lizard and the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish). Habitat purchases, not regulations, helped the pupfish. The Island night lizard was saved by eradicating feral rabbits, cats, sheep and goats from its island habitats. Many of these competitors were removed in the 1930s and 1940s, well before the ESA was enacted, while others were eradicated since 1973, in the face of intense opposition from animal rights activists. Traditional wildlife management (as opposed to land-use regulation) was also the key to saving the Aleutian Canada goose (fox eradication), gray wolf (better deer management combined with a prohibition on killing wolves and subsidizing the killing of wolves), and the Columbian white-tailed deer (closed the hunting season).

As with other ESA apologists, Secretary Babbitt is desperate to make the law look as if it is working. It isn't. Babbitt touts 34 species as ESA "successes," but none of them are. Only 16 of those species have actually rebounded. The ESA had little, if anything, to do with the resurgence of those 16 species. Most importantly, none of these species have benefited from the ESA's punitive regulation of private property. In sum, Babbitt's announcement merely shows that such regulations aren't working, aren't needed, and should be abolished.


Ike C. Sugg is Fellow in Wildlife and Land-Use policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute ([email protected]).