Let’s Talk Endangered Species

Endangered Florida panther. Photo courtesy of Monica R.

There’s a big difference between a 3 percent and 99 percent success rate. Yet both of these numbers were thrown around to discuss the success of the Endangered Species Act at protecting imperiled wildlife in today’s House Natural Resource Committee’s markup hearing.

How can this be? Can an act be both a huge success and a dismal failure at the same time? Of species listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, 99 percent have avoided extinction. Yet only 3 percent have recovered enough to be delisted. The vast majority of species remain in the metaphorical hospital—hanging on, but not healthy enough to go home.

The act, unfortunately, does not specify how we should interpret success. Its stated purposes include providing “a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species.” But what “conservation” means remains vague.

While hearing rhetoric and seeing statistics may push us to consider an all-or-nothing judgment on the act’s efficacy, conservation should be about both preventing extinction AND achieving recovery. As PERC research fellow Jonathan Wood explains in his report “The Road to Recovery,” we can achieve both if we get the incentives right.

One such approach implemented by the Department of the Interior last year was the subject of today’s hearing. Restoring the distinction between threatened and endangered species listed under the Endangered Species Act, reserving the take prohibition as a backstop to protect endangered species from extinction, can promote conservation.

The statute provides for two listing categories: “endangered” species, which are currently at risk of extinction, and “threatened” species, which are at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future. When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, it envisioned states taking the lead to protect threatened species, with strict federal regulations against “take” reserved for endangered species. In 1975, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a regulation extending the take rules to threatened species, too, eliminating the distinction between the two categories. Take is defined so broadly that it can include activities intended to help species, like when state biologists in Utah tried to relocate protected prairie dogs to dedicated conservation lands, and can complicate state and private efforts to recover species.

By restoring the statute’s distinction between the two categories, states and landowners are encouraged to recover threatened species before they reach endangered status. A threatened listing serves as a signal that a species is at risk of becoming endangered, encouraging states, landowners, and other groups to recover the species.

Innovative and collaborative conservation programs can be easier to develop because landowners have greater incentives to participate. Landowners who recover endangered species will be rewarded for their efforts by reduced regulatory burdens once a species’ status was changed to threatened, creating a powerful incentive to recover endangered species. Crucially, the Endangered Species Act’s take prohibition would continue to protect the most vulnerable species from extinction.

Looking forward to species conservation, it’s important that we maintain a backstop on extinction, but we also have to consider the incentives for recovery. In this way, we can make sure the Endangered Species Act is a success no matter how it’s measured.

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