Let's Talk Legislation: Endangered Species Act Improvements In the Crosshairs

President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973 with the goal of protecting critically imperiled species from extinction. In August, the Department of the Interior announced a number of revisions to the ESA. The decision was quickly attacked by some environmental groups, with Earthjustice going so far as to file a lawsuit over the “Trump-Bernhardt Extinction Plan.”

While the response would seem to indicate that Secretary Bernhardt announced open season on bald eagles and baby seals, in reality, the revisions address a number of problems with the aging law. 

The chief problem with the Endangered Species Act is its track record. After nearly five decades, only 39 species have been delisted due to recovery. Compare that to the 1623 domestic species currently listed and the ESA’s success rate sits at about 2 percent.

This number doesn’t necessarily mean conservation efforts have been ineffective. Rather, it is partially reflective of the fact that delisting species is prohibitively difficult, even after significant recovery. Under the new rules, “[t]he standard for a decision to delist a species is the same as the standard for a decision not to list it in the first instance.” This change will help experts quantify success using a more reasonable and useful bar. 

In addition to fixing the delisting standard, the new rules codify the definition of “foreseeable future,” meaning important for distinguishing endangered versus threatened species, used since 2009, require interagency cooperation on decisions affecting listed species, and discourage the designation of unoccupied land as critical habitat. 

The new rule that has received the most criticism is the removal of the requirement that the listing of species is based solely on science, “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.” While at first glance, it may seem like the decision to protect the endangered Florida Panther may now be swayed by the potential loss of profit from not building a big, beautiful new golf course, this is not the case. On the contrary, the decision still has to be made exclusively based on science, but the cost may now be referenced in the report. 

Concern over changes to one of America’s most important conservation laws is understandable, but, in the words of PERC’s Jonathan Wood, “if we’re serious about protecting endangered species, it is imperative that we find ways to preserve what the statute does well (prevent extinction) while improving it as a tool to recover species.” Unfortunately, many of the accusations made by environmental groups about the Department of the Interior’s changes are inaccurate. Instead of attacking any changes to the Endangered Species Act, conservationists of all stripes need to come together to ensure it serves its purpose for decades to come.

Quill Robinson