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The ESA Should Be Reformed to Better Incentivize Recovery Efforts

  • Jonathan Wood
  • An endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox

    This testimony was submitted to the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife, and Fisheries Hearing on the Endangered Species Act at 50.

    Main Points
    • While thankfully few species regulated by the Endangered Species Act have gone extinct over the last 50 years, the statute has fallen far short in its ultimate goal of recovering endangered and threatened species.
    • The principal reason that only 3% of listed species have recovered is that the statute penalizes landowners who accommodate rare species or conserve their habitats, creating perverse incentives.
    • This failing recovery rate can’t be explained away with claims that the ESA simply needs more time. The recovery rate for species the Fish and Wildlife Service predicted would recover by now is a mere 4%.
    • To recover more species, the ESA and its implementation must be reformed to improve incentives for states, tribes, and landowners to invest in habitat restoration and proactive recovery efforts.

    Chairman Bentz, Ranking Member Huffman, and members of the committee, thank you for the invitation to participate in this important and timely discussion of the Endangered Species Act on the 50th anniversary of its enactment. Over the last half-century, less than 1% of listed species have gone extinct, a significant and laudable accomplishment. But Congress set a more ambitious goal in the ESA: to recover species so that they were no longer at risk. Unfortunately, the ESA has not been effective at recovering species, with only 3% of listed species achieving this goal. Soon, the Property and Environment Research Center will publish a report analyzing the Fish and Wildlife Service’s progress in recovering species, some of the findings from which are previewed below. One of our key findings is that the Service has recovered only 13 of the 300 species it predicted would recover by now, a 4% recovery rate for those species. This suggests that the failing recovery rate can’t be excused by claims that it is too soon to judge the ESA’s effectiveness at recovering species.

    Instead, the lack of recoveries—even among those species projected to recover by now—is due to a more fundamental problem. Incentives matter. And the ESA too often gets them wrong. It imposes regulations that penalize landowners who conserve rare species and their habitats, making them liabilities rather than assets. As

    Michael Bean, former EDF and Obama admin official, has observed, “anyone who wishes to improve the law’s results should start by addressing the need [for] positive incentives” to engage in recovery efforts.1

    To the Biden administration’s credit, it has recognized the importance of incentives in many of its initiatives, including America the Beautiful, and committed to pursue conservation in ways that “honor private property rights and support voluntary stewardship.”2 PERC has proudly supported the administration when it has acted consistent with this commitment, including a proposed ESA rule streamlining permitting for voluntary conservation efforts.3 Unfortunately, the administration’s vision of conservation as something “done with private landowners, not to them”4 has not been borne out in its implementation of the ESA. Several high-profile regulatory decisions and proposals have needlessly provoked conflict with landowners while doing nothing to benefit species or—worse—directly undermining incentives to restore habitat and recover species.

    Written By
    • Jonathan Wood
      • Vice President of Law & Policy

      Jonathan Wood is vice president of law and policy at PERC, leading PERC’s Conservation Law and Policy Center.

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