The Use and Abuse of the Endangered Species Act

The United States has a long history of working to protect species from extinction. In 1939, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) was created for this purpose, and in 1973 the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed to augment its power. Protecting species naturally puts the government at odds with landowners, however. The ESA effectively allows the government to determine how land can be used, even if it is on private land. As current estimates put the percentage of endangered species on private land at 90%, this conflict is somewhat inevitable. This became evident even as far back as 1978, when the American Farm Bureau voiced concerns that the ESA would give the federal government the ability to prefer the health of a species over the livelihood of a citizen.

One example of this occurred in 1990, when the spotted owl was listed as an endangered species. The government argued that the timber industry was killing its natural habitat, wiping out the species. After its listing, U.S. timber industry revenues decreased by nearly 90%, putting many out of business. Further researched revealed that the timber industry was not at fault; the real issue was the barred owl, who was eating all of the spotted owl’s natural food. Nonetheless, the damage to the timber industry remained.

Obama has recently paved the way for many similar abuses of the ESA by forcing the USFWS to list many new species under the ESA in the name of “clearing the backlog of cases.” Beginning in 2000, environmental groups began to flood the USFWS with requests for new additions to the ESA. Groups like the WildEarth Guardians have filed for over 1,230 plants and animals to be added to the list since 2007. Obama has agreed to analyze each and every request beginning in May of 2011.

As with the EPA , these new regulations have now gone too far and are now hurting property rights and slowing economic growth. While protecting a species is not inherently wrong, or even liberal (Republican President Teddy Roosevelt is widely recognized as the father of American conservation movement), it is problematic when species and habitats are defined in such a way as to prevent people from using their property the way they intended. Recent examples include:

  • Farmers in California suffered a terrible draught that scorched their land because the Obama Administration allowed the USFWS to channel water away from their farm in an effort to protect the delta smelt, a California fish.
  • The protection of prairie dogs in Utah has meant that homeowners have no legal means of protecting their yards and pastures from the tunneling and burrowing of prairie dogs.
  • Cattle ranchers in Texas have been hit by many regulations in the past few years, including protection of the Shinnery Oaks their cattle graze on and the Dune Sagebrush Lizard. These efforts significantly limit the value of their land by preventing the ranchers from letting their cattle roam on sections of it.

These examples show the importance of developing correct regulations that make responsible choices about species, but do not effectively end the property rights of a citizen, or destroy the income of an industry. Currently the USFWS has not been charged with balancing its decisions, only getting through its cases as quickly as possible. This does not lead to responsible legislation. The importance of property rights and economic growth requires that we make more responsible choices.