But it does imperil property.
The 1973 Endangered Species Act has been a costly failure that hasn’t protected species or helped them to recover. It has, however, resulted in government stealing people’s property and blocked economic progress.
Since 1973, more than 2,470 species of plants and animals have been listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Billions of dollars have been spent by federal, state, local governments, and private individuals to help those species recover. People have been forbidden to build homes or businesses on their own land, told they must stop farming or logging, and road and hospital construction has been halted or delayed. Yet for all this effort, just 78 species have been removed from the Endangered Species List — just 3.1 percent of all species ever listed.
Further, a majority of the species removed from the list were taken off because they had been initially improperly placed on it due to data errors (18 species); were foreign species given no protection by the ESA (22); were recovered due to other laws or regulations, such as the banning of DDT (13); or, worst of all, delisted because they became extinct while on the list or were already extinct at the time they were listed (10 species). In more than 44 years of existence, at best, ESA is responsible for helping 13 species to recover — though it’s questionable whether the recovery of those 13 species, mostly plants, is actually due to the ESA, since they existed almost entirely on federal land and were thus already protected.
In addition to failing to accomplish its primary goal, ESA has caused innumerable horror stories for property owners, plants, and animals. For instance, in 2012, construction on a $15.1 million underpass in Texas was brought to a screeching halt when workers came across a single “bracken bat cave mesh weaver,” a blind, translucent spider that was thought to be extinct. There was just one big problem: The spider was so similar to another blind spider in the region that in order to confirm its identity, researchers killed it. In doing so, they may have killed the last remaining bracken bat cave mesh weaver in existence. Since that time, no other member of the species has been identified, and construction on the project was delayed for three years.
In multiple southeastern states, many landowners began clear cutting their long-leaf pine trees, critical habitat for the Red-cockaded woodpecker, once it was listed as endangered, because they feared losing their property rights after watching their neighbors, in whose trees woodpeckers had established homes, lose their right to manage their property. Property values declined wherever woodpeckers appeared, and logging was undertaken at a feverish pace to avoid the woodpecker taking up residence on people’s land.
Since 2014, landowners in Thurston County, Washington, have had their ability to develop their property severely restricted due to the discovery of three subspecies of the Mazama pocket gopher, which has been twice listed as threatened under ESA. To avoid being sued by the federal government, Thurston County now requires landowners who want to build on their property to determine whether their soils are suitable gopher habitat.
In one case, because inspectors discovered a single mound of dirt indicating the possible presence of gophers on an eight-acre parcel of land during a site review, Steve and Deborah McLain have been unable to get a permit to build a home on their property, despite offering to cede the acre surrounding the mound as protected gopher habitat. In another instance, a home developer had to fence off 64 percent of a one-acre lot to get a permit required to build a home.
The true cost of the ESA should be measured in houses, homeless shelters, and hospitals not built or significantly delayed; medical and technological discoveries not advanced; funds not available for education, crime control, health, or environmental matters; and in “protected” species lost or still on the list and declining.
ESA fails to protect species because it creates perverse incentives to destroy species and their habitat. More than 75 percent of the listed species depend on private land for all or part of their habitat. Yet if people provide suitable habitat for an endangered species, their land becomes subject to severe regulation and possible confiscation.
Property owners are faced with three undesirable options: kill an endangered species member — “shoot, shovel, and shut up” — destroy habitat before a species moves in, or lose the use and value of their land. Clinging to this approach condemns the very species ESA was passed to protect.
For 44 years the ESA has made property owners adversaries of endangered species. At a minimum, we must make property owners allies in species conservation by compensating them for losses incurred when protecting endangered or threatened animals and plants.