Should We Reform the Endangered Species Act?

What is a cleaner world without the animals that inhabit it? The Endangered Species Act (ESA), signed in 1973, has been under fire by office-holders from all sides of the aisle, arguing for either its strengthening or repeal.  Polling indicates that the American public sides 90% in favor of the Act, regardless of their personal political affiliation; so perhaps the solution lies more in compromise and reform than in either repealing it altogether or ignoring some of the issues it presents.

The intention of the Endangered Species Act was, as the name suggests, to help preserve those at-risk species which exist within American borders under the looming threat of extinction. For the most part, supporters of this Act tout success in their conservation efforts, and it is true that approximately 99% of the species included on the list have been kept from extinction. However, in terms of the actual recovery of the species listed, the numbers look much more grim. Less than 5% (roughly 20 out of 2,000) of those species who have been selected for protection under this Act have successfully recovered their population significantly enough to be removed from the watch-list.

Supporters of this legislation applaud the government for upholding heightened standards of conservation, but this legislation also creates disputes between the government and many private landowners. This is due to language of the legislation that enables the government to seize land in the event that a listed species is found to inhabit it, no matter the prior ownership of the property. Rather than encouraging private landowners to report the existence of such species on their property, the fear of losing their holdings to the federal government has given more incentive to removing the species altogether than it has to cooperate with conservation efforts. Rather than having their land seized by the government, many landowners have reduced themselves to killing off the species found on their property rather than suffer the consequences of having it found. Because of this and many other factors in play, the vast majority of listed species have not recovered sufficiently to be considered for de-listing. This leaves taxpayers wondering how the millions of dollars spent enforcing this act have been used, if not for a successful recovery program.

It has been proven time and time again in government that punishments do little to quell unfavorable behavior when it comes to matters of liberty. In terms of the protection of endangered species, land owners run the risk of being punished if they do not report the existence of listed species on their land, but they also stand to suffer the consequences of having their land seized if they do choose to report it. As such, there are not many tangible incentives for landowners to contribute to the conservation effort. From their perspective, they stand to lose out either way. The logical course of action would seem to be reforming the Endangered Species Act to include some sort of incentive-based system for encouraging private landowners to aid in this effort.

The issue of conservation is one that should concern adherents to both sides of the aisle, and it is one that must include the American people if it is to be a successful one. There should be a solution in which these species are protected without violating the rights of private landowners, and only by enlisting the help and goodwill of these landowners can this effort make real strides.

The free market system in which this country thrives demands that the government, in all its ventures, operate under the consent and with the support of the governed. In terms of the environment, this becomes even more crucial as we attempt to conserve the world around us. Conserving our world and preserving our rights should not operate as variables that are mutually exclusive.

Sage Kafsky