Nearly 50 years ago, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. It was uncontentious at the time; little did anyone know what was to come. Though intended to protect imperiled species, the law has become an endless source of conflict.
The Endangered Species Act was designed to do two things: prevent species from going extinct and promote their recovery back to health. The good news is only 1% of ESA-listed species have gone extinct. On the other hand, less than 2% of species have recovered and been delisted. The truth is: While strict regulations may provide a backstop against extinction, those same onerous restrictions aren’t always better for species’ recovery, oftentimes making listed species a liability. That is what we are seeing today.
To support recovery, we need flexible tools, not strict regulations, to empower states, local governments, tribes, communities, and private landowners to collaborate and implement effective recovery efforts.
Our rural communities and private landowners know best how to preserve our wildlife and provide essential habitats. Because about half of listed species rely on private land for 80% of their habitat, cooperation with these communities is crucial for recovery. Unfortunately, ESA regulations often negatively affect the very people we need as conservation partners through land use restrictions, reduced property values, and costly permitting requirements. In effect, the law makes enemies out of the people most critical to species recovery.
Our organizations, the Congressional Western Caucus and the Property and Environment Research Center, both have a robust history of advocating for locally led conservation and ensuring environmental policy translates to sustainable outcomes. As the former director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture and former chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, we have experience working with governments and private citizens to conserve our land and manage our species through a comprehensive and collaborative approach — conservation without conflict. Because we care about preventing extinction and recovering endangered species, we support reforms to the ESA that preserve the conservation intent while boosting incentives for recovering species.
In recent years, progress had been made in streamlining and clarifying ESA regulations that work for the 21st century. Rule-making modernized implementation of the act to encourage voluntary restoration efforts and safeguard critical species protections while supporting livelihoods in rural America. One new approach finalized in 2019, for example, would keep strict regulations for “endangered” species but loosen them as the species begins to recover and is downlisted to “threatened.” This tact rewards states and landowners for successful recovery actions while discouraging actions that could harm species and lead to their decline.
The Biden administration recently announced plans to rescind several of the improved rules and revert to wide-sweeping regulations. This will not only hamper our ability to work with landowners and local leaders on species recovery, but it is also hard to reconcile with the administration’s proposed America the Beautiful campaign to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and water by 2030. Instead of “recognizing the oversized contributions that farmers, ranchers, [and] forest owners … already make in safeguarding wildlife” or “recognizing and rewarding the voluntary conservation efforts of private landowners,” the administration is looking to impose even more federal restrictions on the people working to restore our precious wildlife.
The success of conservation policy must be measured by its outcomes — not by the number of, or stringency of, regulations. The focus must instead be on supporting local conservation efforts that use some of the most effective species recovery tools we have: private citizens and American industry. Certainly there is more work to be done, including actively managing our public lands to prevent the catastrophic wildfires that destroy habitat for the greater sage-grouse or updating our water infrastructure to improve survival rates of endangered salmon species, but we must start by focusing on what works to promote recovery and resisting the urge to return to old, unsuccessful tools.
Reverting to stringent regulations under the Endangered Species Act gets the incentives wrong for species recovery, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We urge the Biden administration to reconsider its plans and instead focus on allowing innovation and collaboration to succeed in getting the conservation job done.