Commentary

Species Law is Useless

By Jerry Taylor
This article appeared in USA Today on May 14, 1992.
If one judges the Endangered Species Act by its goal of species preservation, by any standard it has been a miserable failure.

Although 1,071 species of flora and fauna worldwide have been listed as endangered or threatened since 1973, only four species (three bird species on the Pacific island of Palau and one plant in Utah) have been “de-listed” by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

According to the Government Accounting Office and the National Wilderness Institute, however, the recovery of those species was due not to the act but to the discovery of new birds and the correction of data errors. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the act has managed to even stabilize the populations of declining species.

Mainstream environmentalists, however, apparently measure the act’s success not by species saved but by lawsuits, projects halted, recovery plans drafted, bureaucrats hired and areas of land unjustly appropriated from the public.

The act has failed because it sets up incentives to destroy the very habitat it was designed to protect. Property owners who harbor or protect endangered species, in effect, have their land taken from them without any compensation. Therefore, owners who wish to maintain full rights to their property have every incentive to eliminate wildlife habitat before it is targeted by the bureaucracy.

That’s why all the money or regulatory enforcement in the world will fail to improve upon the sorry record of the Endangered Species Act.

The recovery of the peregrine falcon is proof that, absent perverse incentives, private individuals will act to protect endangered wildlife.

As currently written, however, the Endangered Species Act is to wildlife what Pol Pot was to Cambodia.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute.