AS THE Endangered Species Act marks its 25th anniversary, the official number of endangered species is near its all-time high. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1,135 plants and animals are on the brink of extinction. By contrast, only 27 species have been "delisted" — that is, taken off the list because they are no longer endangered.
The law was enacted with noble motives and high hopes, but it has proved a bust. For 25 years it has imposed severe controls and prohibitions on any use of any property that might in any way threaten an endangered species. It is a law with such sharp teeth that it has stopped multimillion-dollar construction projects in their tracks to protect the habitat of a tiny fish or little-known weed. Yet after a quarter-century of this relentless protection, more than 97 percent of the endangered-species list is, by the government's own reckoning, endangered.
The population of bald eagles is growing, but the Endangered Species Act had little to do with it.
Make that 96 percent. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has just proposed de-listing 29 more species. That would leave a mere 1,106 to go. Don't break out the champagne just yet.
There are clearly huge problems with a law that has taken so long to accomplish so little. But rather than acknowledge those problems and try to correct them, Babbitt insists that the Endangered Species Act is a ringing success.
"We can now finally prove one thing conclusively," he declared in the Western Massachusetts town of Gill earlier this month. "The Endangered Species Act works. Period."
But as Brian Seasholes of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., has demonstrated, almost none of the success stories on Babbitt's list are due to the Endangered Species Act. As it turns out, most of the 29 species proposed for delisting (a) were never endangered in the first place, (b) were revived by methods unrelated to the ESA, (c) were resurrected on lands where ESA restrictions don't apply, or (d) are not even valid species!
Take Babbitt's most dramatic example: the bald eagle. When it was listed as endangered in 1974, only 1,600 of the majestic birds were left. Today there are more than 10,000. "One of the greatest success stories of the Endangered Species Act," Babbitt cheers.
Untrue. For starters, the number of bald eagles was already on the rise when Congress passed the act — the 1,600 flying in 1974 were nearly double the 834 that had existed 10 years earlier.
Moreover, writes Seasholes, it was "the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972, not the passage of the ESA in 1973, that was the most important factor in its resurgence." Bald eagles were dying out because DDT was causing them to lay thin-shelled eggs that broke before hatching. Once DDT was eliminated from the food chain, the birds' eggs reverted to normal — and the populations of eagles soared. The Endangered Species Act had little if anything to do with it.
Another example: the Aleutian Canada goose. Its population has indeed rebounded, but not because of restrictions imposed by the act on private landowners. According to Seasholes, the Aleutian goose nests on federal property — a National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Its numbers started growing when the Fish and Wildlife Service started shooting foxes. And "the provision of wintering habitat, almost totally by private landowners . . . was the second-most significant factor."
Reread that last sentence. Time and again, it is private initiative that has saved threatened species from extinction or depletion.
The half-million members of Ducks Unlimited, many of them avid duck hunters, have preserved more than 6 million acres of wetlands in the organization's 60 years. The Peregrine Fund breeds falcons, condors, and other birds of prey for release into the wild. The Nature Conservancy raises and spends hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase land for preservation. Similar cases abound.
What these organizations have in common is a reliance on private initiative and property rights to preserve species and cultivate habitat. They recognize that no one has a greater incentive to be a good steward of nature than those who have the freedom to benefit by it.
The Endangered Species Act does the reverse: It strips property owners of their rights, punishing them for owning land on which a listed species makes its home. It imposes economic costs so harsh — forcing owners to sacrifice the use of their property without reimbursing them for the loss — that there is no incentive to protect habitat that might nurture those species.
Under the Endangered Species Act, write Joseph Bast, Peter Hill, and Richard Rue in their 1994 book Eco-Sanity, the discovery "of an eagle or spotted owl nesting on private land means a forest can no longer be logged, or a house cannot be built, or part of a golf course or campground must be closed. To avoid losing use of a valuable asset, a landowner might be tempted to destroy a nest or even kill an endangered animal. Alternatively, the owner might allow critical habitat to be destroyed by logging or developing as quickly as possible, before anyone else can see and report the protected animal."
The law may protect some plants and animals that would otherwise disappear. But it has undoubtedly caused the deliberate destruction of millions of other endangered plants and animals. That is why, after 25 years, 97 percent of the endangered species list remains endangered. The Endangered Species Act manifestly needs an overhaul. Why won't Bruce Babbitt say so?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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