The apparent sighting of a single ocean-going steelhead trout in the recently restored Malibu Lagoon is a rare, but welcome, piece of good news for the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, the steelhead trout's potentially positive outlook in Malibu is the exception, rather than the rule.
The Endangered Species Act lists 34 species as threatened or endangered in Orange County. In Riverside County, 36 species are currently listed and 48 species in San Diego County are listed.
Regrettably, the Endangered Species Act's 40-year history is filled with failures to increase the numbers of species it lists as endangered. And there is increasing evidence that the law's harsh penalties and regulations are actually causing it to fail, especially on private lands. This is why the ratio of declining-to-improving species on private land is 9-to-1, whereas on public land, like the Malibu Lagoon, it is a much-better 1.5-to-1.
The reason for this troubling disparity is easy to understand. The Endangered Species Act's massive penalties of up to a $100,000 fine and/or one year in jail for harming one member of a protected species or its habitat turn endangered species into unwanted financial liabilities. Private landowners don't want to face the penalties to bear the costs that the government will impose on them for harboring the species on their land. Private landowners often seek to rid their land of endangered species and habitat so they aren't subject to the Endangered Species Act's regulations and penalties. The perverse incentives encouraging landowners to eliminate habitats significantly hamper efforts to protect and restore species - 80 percent of all endangered species can be found on private lands.
In 2010, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started the voluntary Sage Grouse Initiative to protect the bird's habitat in 11 Western states, including California and Nevada. Ranchers' participation in the initiative, billed as a partnership of ranchers, agencies, universities, non-profit groups and businesses in the bi-state California-Nevada region, increased from five in 2010 to 24 in 2013. Then everything changed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the sage grouse's bi-state population might be listed under the Endangered Species Act. In 2014 only three ranchers applied to participate in the Sage Grouse Initiative because they "are fearful" that if the bird is listed by the federal government the regulations will make "their private agricultural operations unviable," according to the Department of Agriculture.
Most landowners, be they citrus farmers in Riverside or ranchers along the California-Nevada border, take great pride in caring for their land, including many of the creatures they harbor. Tragically, the Endangered Species Act has turned these landowner-conservationists into unwilling enemies of wildlife. As a result, landowners and species are both worse off.
A much more successful approach to conserving endangered species would be to remove the penalties that are causing so much harm and then replace them with incentives, much like the Sage Grouse Initiative was doing before the threat of the Endangered Species Act hampered it.
If a new, incentive-based approach to protecting species is not taken, we will have another 40 years of farmers sterilizing their fields, ranchers sitting on their hands and endangered species continuing to be harmed. Endangered species conservation would be so much more successful if we were willing to embrace a future in which landowners were no longer punished for the species that appear on their lands.
Cooperation between private landowners and government, not harsh regulation and punishment, is the best way to protect the environment and rare species.
Brian Seasholes is director of the endangered species project at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.