The Endangered Species Act at 40: Species Profiles

Policy Study

The Endangered Species Act at 40: Species Profiles

The ESA's record of success has been badly exaggerated, and the Act has been detrimental to the conservation of species it was designed to protect

Since its passage in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has become one of America’s most powerful and controversial environmental laws. With 2014 being the 40th anniversary year of the Act’s passage, there has been a surge of interest in the Act. Unfortunately, most analyses and reports repeat myths and misconceptions regarding the impact and value of the Act. For 20 years, Brian Seasholes has been investigating the ESA and other ways of conserving endangered species. In a series of analyses for Reason, he seeks to address the real impact of the Act and to propose practical reforms. Seasholes analyses address two primary issues:

  • The impact of the Act on landowners. The Act requires landowners who may have endangered species on their property to undertake certain activities and avoid other activities, on pain of severe penalties, but provides no compensation for the costs imposed (including devaluation of property). But this has the effect perversely and counterproductively of incentivizing landowners to make their property inhospitable to species. That is why the ratio of declining to improving species on private land is 9 to 1, whereas on federal lands it is 1.5 to 1. Private lands are the linchpin to successful endangered species conservation. Fully 78% of endangered species depended on private land for all or some of their habitat, compared to 50% for federal land.
  • The role played by the ESA in the recovery of species. Recovery, the ultimate goal of the ESA, means a species is in good enough shape to be removed from protection under the Act – otherwise known as “delisting”. (A species may also be delisted if it is extinct or if it was listed in error.) To date, 56 species have been delisted; of those, 10 are extinct and 18 were listed erroneously; the remaining 28 are alleged by proponents of the Act to have recovered due to protection under the ESA. (Among the recovered species are most of the “poster species” with which proponents sell the Act, four of which are profiled here; the bald eagle, American alligator, and two sub-species of peregrine falcon.) By contrast, opponents of the ESA allege that the Act has not been responsible for the recovery of these 28 species. Unfortunately, to date these two opposing claims have almost invariably been made with little supporting evidence. Where evidence has been provided, it is often scant and without citation, so cannot be independently verified.

Brian Seasholes has undertaken profiles of eleven of the species claimed as recovered in an effort to provide something new and different: highly detailed examinations of the conservation of these species, including citations with which information can be independently verified. Links to the profiles are below:

Aleuthian Canada Goose (.pdf) – Summary (.pdf)
American Alligator (.pdf) – Summary (.pdf)
American Peregrine Falcon (.pdf) – Summary (.pdf)
Arctic Peregrine Falcon (.pdf) – Summary (.pdf)
Bald Eagle (.pdf) – Summary (.pdf)
Hawaiian Hawk (.pdf) – Summary (.pdf)
Hoover’s Woolly-Star (.pdf) – Summary (.pdf)
Palau Fantail Flycatcher, Palau Owl, Palau Ground Dove (.pdf) – Summary (.pdf)
Tinian Monarch (.pdf) – Summary (.pdf)

If there is to be an intelligent debate about the Endangered Species Act, it is essential that it be based on facts and not mere assertions. These species profiles are an attempt to contribute to just such an enlightened and fact-based debate. The profiles reveal that for most of these species recovery owes little to the ESA. Worse, the ESA appears to have been detrimental to the conservation of many of the species.

Full references for all species profiles are available here: References (.pdf)

Brian Seasholes is a former research fellow with Reason Foundation.