Endangered Species as Assets Instead of Liabilities

Rare species must benefit rather than burden the private landowners who provide essential habitat for them.

Depending on who you ask, the Endangered Species Act is either one of America’s greatest conservation successes or one of its most dismal failures. Its supporters point out that only 1 percent of listed species have gone extinct, while critics counter that less than 2 percent of species have recovered and been delisted. Regardless, no one would dispute the law’s potential to have significant economic consequences—and to bring about legal or political conflict.

The act’s vast regulatory powers can affect land-use decisions across the country, often on behalf of lesser-known, less charismatic species, such as the American burying beetle, Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, and Hine’s emerald dragonfly. And because most endangered species rely in part on private lands for habitat, these restrictions can be especially burdensome for private landowners. Along the way, the law can make enemies out of the very people who are most critical to the recovery of imperiled species.

Under the longstanding approach to endangered species, landowners who provide habitat for listed species receive no benefit. Instead, they are often penalized through costly regulatory burdens such as restrictions on land use, reduced property values, and costly permitting requirements. Those realities present a huge challenge for recovery prospects given that about half of all endangered species rely on private lands for approximately 80 percent of their habitat.

Because we care about preventing extinction and recovering imperiled species, the challenge is to find reforms that preserve what the act does well while boosting incentives for recovering species. 


PERC’s approach to conservation relies on voluntary exchange that results in positive environmental outcomes for both private and public resources.

PERC believes that many private landowners would be willing to provide habitat for imperiled species so long as they were not “rewarded” with nothing but costs, as is too often the case. Offering compensation to restore habitat, or reimbursing the costs of critical-habitat designations, would provide real incentives for species recovery. We should prioritize reforms that help align the incentives of landowners with those of vulnerable species.


PERC research has presented sensible reforms that would enable us to achieve both of the Endangered Species Act’s important goals: prevent extinction and recover species. In The Road to Recovery, we explored how restoring the act’s two-step process of threatened and endangered listings could promote these goals. In 2019, the Department of the Interior made policy reforms that will restore the original distinction between threatened and endangered protections for future species listings. Now, landowners, states, and other interested parties who recover endangered species know they will be rewarded for their efforts with reduced regulatory burdens once a species’ status changes to threatened, creating a powerful incentive to recover endangered species.The reforms give landowners a stake in a species’ status, and PERC will continue to examine and study the effects of this change in the future.

In a special issue of PERC Reports in 2018, we explored many issues related to the challenges of species recovery, including an on-the-ground report about the dusky gopher frog, the subject of the latest major Supreme Court case regarding endangered species. PERC scholars have also written on various topics related to endangered species for many popular media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review.

The fundamental challenge of recovering rare species is figuring out ways to turn them into assets instead of liabilities. To truly conserve endangered species, the Endangered Species Act must not only prevent extinctions but also provide incentives for landowners to support endangered species of all kinds. PERC is committed to exploring innovative reforms that can go beyond preventing extinction and promote species recovery as well.

Research on This Topic

Public Comment on the Rescission of “Habitat” Definition: A public comment on the proposed rescission of the regulation defining “habitat” for purposes of designating critical habitat.

Public Comment on the Proposed Rescission of the Exclusion Rule: A public comment regarding the proposed rescission of the rule governing the designation of critical habitat.

How Not to Protect Endangered Species: A commentary on why the Biden administration should focus on getting the incentives right for species recovery.

The New Endangered Species Act Rules, Explained: An explainer on new rules concerning the implementation of the Endangered Species Act by the Departments of the Interior and Commerce.

Road to Recovery: A report on how restoring the Endangered Species Act’s two-step process can prevent extinction and promote recovery.

PERC Reports: Getting Species Recovery Right: An issue of PERC Reports magazine on the challenges of species recovery—and how to provide incentives that can overcome those challenges.

House Committee on Natural Resources Legislative Hearing: PERC Research Fellow Jonathan Wood’s testimony before the House Committee on Natural Resources on a collection of bills that seek to reform the Endangered Species Act.

Public Comment on Proposals to Improve the Endangered Species Act: PERC weighs in on efforts by the Department of the Interior to “improve and modernize” the Endangered Species Act.

Public Comment on Defining ‘Habitat’ for the Endangered Species Act: PERC weighs in on a proposal that can help make imperiled species and their habitat less of a liability.

Changing the Endangered Species Act Could Actually Help Conservation: An op-ed in the Washington Post on proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act, which would alter the way the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists certain species and designates critical habitat, could help accord win out over acrimony in disputes over imperiled species.

The Feds Bungle Frog Hospitality: An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on how government efforts to save the endangered dusky gopher frog have skewed incentives for conservation.

Consider the Dusky Gopher Frog: An article in the National Review on how land use restrictions under the Endangered Species Act can be especially burdensome for private landowners, making enemies out of the very people who are most critical to endangered-species recovery.

How Much Would You Pay to Protect an Endangered Species?: An op-ed in The Hill on how giving those petitioning to list a species under the Endangered Species Act the option to fund reviews in exchange for an expedited decision would help reduce the backlog in petitions.

The Trump Administration Takes a Step Toward Better Protecting Endangered Species: An article in National Review on how the proposed changes to the definition of critical habitat will improve the incentives for species recovery.