40 years of the Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 marked its 40th anniversary on December 28, 2013 prompting reflection on the health of our ecological systems – particularly on the impact of the ESA over the last 40 years. As with many regulatory statutes, there are critics on both sides: those that believe the Act has become watered down with business-friendly amendments over the years, and those who believe the Act is still too restrictive and unnecessarily prevents economic development.

The purpose of the ESA is to conserve threatened and endangered species and their ecosystems, which the United States has been doing in one form or another since 1900, when Congress passed the Lacey Act. This act (prompted by a decline in the pigeon population) made it unlawful to transport illegally procured wildlife across state lines, in an effort to protect resident species. A history of the many steps taken between the Lacey Act and the current ESA can be found on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service website. The passage of the ESA in the 1970s marked recognition that the natural heritage of the United States is of “aesthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people”, and that, without protection, many of our nation’s living resources would become extinct.

Under the current ESA, the federal government has the responsibility to protect Endangered Species (species likely to become extinct throughout all or a large portion of their current range), Threatened Species (those likely to become endangered in the near future), and Critical Habitat (habitat vital to the survival of endangered or threatened species). When evaluating a species for protection, specific criteria are considered. Has a large percentage of the species’ vital habitat been degraded or destroyed? Has the species been over-consumed by commerce, recreation, science, or education? Is it threatened by disease or predation? Do current regulations or legislative actions inadequately protect the species? When a species is given ESA protection, it is said to be a “listed” species, and when the species has recovered, it is considered “delisted.”

Once a species becomes listed as “endangered” or “threatened,” it receives special protections by the federal government. Animals are protected from being traded or sold, and from a term labeled “take,” which is used in the Endangered Species Act to include “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” The primary goal of the act is to make species’ populations healthy and vital so they can be delisted.

Both proponents and critics of the act frequently draw attention to the number of species currently listed as endangered, and the number recovered. According to a search I ran through the Environmental Conservation Online System, 1176 plants and animals in the United States are currently listed as endangered. According to a FSW delisting report, 30 species have been delisted due to recovery in their populations, and 10 have been delisted due to extinction. Some groups argue that these results are too small to be worth the economic obstacles the act may put in the path of businesses. On the other end of the spectrum, there have been accusations of species being delisted for political, rather than scientific, reasons (see the controversy around the delisting of the gray wolf, as reported in the New York Times).

However it is a criticism from economists that may be most relevant to the business of environmental data. The ESA as it stands is subject to perverse incentives. For example, landowners may engage in preemptive habitat destruction for fear of losing land use because of the presence of an endangered species. The New York Times Magazine posted an article by the authors of Freakonomics on this topic. Economists Gardner Brown and Jason Shogren, note that “the benefits of protecting endangered species accrue to the entire nation, [but] a significant fraction of the costs are borne by the private landowners who shelter about 90 percent of the nearly 1,000 listed species”. Such parties bear the burden of evaluating whether the social benefits of species preservation exceed the private costs. An article by psychologists Daniel Bartels and Russel C. Burnett highlights the complexity of those decisions. So the art of managing environmental resources relies on the art of managing people and their interactions with the environment, and we believe good environmental data products can help.

The FWS response to many of these criticisms frames the issue by looking at a broad array of species data. For example, the agency argues that a “more complete measure of success…includes the number of species that are no longer declining, have stable populations, or have gained a solid foothold on the path toward recovery and are improving in status”. Up to 98 percent of all species listed as either endangered or threatened under the ESA still survive and, according to a report by the FWS, ninety percent of listed species are recovering at the rate specified in their individualized federal recovery plans. By these standards, the ESA is quite successful. We can all contribute to the legacy of this act by recognizing the ecological value of all species, our very real impact on them, and our equally real power to engage in practices that maximize mutual benefit.

environmental dataPatricia Herrmann

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