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Endangered Species day came and went on Friday with little notice, and this is unfortunate. More unfortunate still is the fact that despite more than four decades since the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted and official government protection of plants and animals threatened with extinction became the law of the land, so few of the species considered at risk have actually been recovered — and, as numerous studies have shown, of the few species removed from the list, none can have their recovery specifically tied to protections afforded by the ESA. It has been a total failure.
As my friend and sometimes collaborator Brian Seasholes argued in a recent essay, America has a long and proud tradition of private conservation that saved the bison from extinction and continues today in countless ways. Yet the success of private conservation is usually unknown to the general public because landowners, especially those in rural areas who own most of the country’s endangered species habitat, quietly go about their business and don’t toot their own horn. Indeed, nationwide, 78 percent of endangered species depend on private land for some or all of their habitat and 62 percent of endangered species depend on private land for 81-100 percent of their habitat.
Yet, the endangered species act positively discourages species protection and encourages surreptitious destruction of endangered species or their habitat in order to avoid what amounts to government taking of private property without compensation.
The problem with the ESA is that it creates perverse incentives to destroy species and their habitat. If people provide suitable habitat for an endangered species, their land becomes subject to severe regulation if not confiscation. As a former USFWS official stated: “The incentives are wrong here. If I have a rare metal on my property, its value goes up. But if a rare bird occupies the land, its value disappears. We’ve got to turn it around to make the landowner want to have the bird on his property.”
Seasholes provides a powerful analogy:
Imagine if this country tackled the problem of homelessness by passing a law that allowed the federal government to force homeowners to house homeless people and shoulder all of the costs. Urban and suburban homeowners, who are the primary supporters of the Endangered Species Act, would cry foul about fairness, the lack of compensation and equitable sharing of societal goals. Such a law would also be a particularly counterproductive approach because it would create widespread backlash towards an important issue and strong incentives for the better-off to avoid helping the homeless, such as making their dwellings inhospitable to the homeless.
Don’t even get me started on the all too common practice in dealing with Endangered Species referred to as “shoot, shovel and shut up!” Let’s just say that no one would do well under that scenario, the homeless especially.
Imagine if instead of a stick, the government offered a carrot for private landowners to improve habitat so that endangered species would take up residence on their land — expanding species habitat and numbers in the process. If the government paid a bounty for every breeding pair, flock, den, clutch, pack, nest, etc. of an endangered animal (or plant) found on ones property. Almost undoubtedly, if species came a financial benefit attached, rather a penalty, they would flourish.
Would it cost money, of course, but the present act has costs of billions of dollars over 40 years with little to show for it. Only time would tell whether a reward based species recovery act would cost more than the current punitive one — but even if so, if it worked better than the current law at recovering species, it would arguably be worth it, and it would certainly be more in line with the Constitutional requirement that private property owners be justly compensated when their property is taken for a public purpose.
Seasholes closed his essay suggesting, “this Endangered Species Day, don’t celebrate the Endangered Species Act or the groups that support it. Instead, celebrate America’s beauty, biodiversity and its true endangered species conservationists — its underappreciated and long-suffering rural landowners.”
I’ll go further, imagine a better world with fewer species at risk with landowners efforts to protect them rewarded with cold hard cash or some other benefit (like a tax credit).