Economist, n. a scoundrel whose faulty vision sees things as they really are, not as they ought to be. —after Ambrose Bierce
By Daniel K. Benjamin
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been hotly debated for 40 years. Supporters call it the “crown jewel” of American environmental legislation, essential to biodiversity preservation. Opponents argue that the ESA imposes high costs on society while delivering few benefits. New research brings important evidence to bear on this debate. Ferraro, McIntosh, and Ospina (2007) find that the ESA has, in fact, failed to protect endangered species. Indeed, their evidence indicates that for a large majority of the species studied, listing under the ESA has actually harmed the species’ chances of recovery.
Ferraro et al examine two different elements of the ESA’s operation: the impact of listing a species as being endangered, and the effects of species-specific government recovery expenditures. After taking both listing and spending into account, the authors find that the overall effect of the ESA has been to reduce listed species’ chances of recovery, although this negative effect is small. They go on to show that there are quite dramatic differences in outcomes depending on the level of spending on species recovery programs. For the 25 percent of the listed species that garner about 95 percent of all government recovery funding, the ESA seems to have produced improvements in the chances of recovery. But for the other 75 percent of species, those that are largely ignored by the funding process, the ESA has sharply reduced species’ viability, compared to unlisted species that are otherwise similar except for listing status. Thus, for most of the species studied, the ESA has had perverse consequences, reducing rather than enhancing survival chances.
Prior studies of the impact of the ESA have been flawed by their failure to adequately address the question: What would have happened to a listed species had it not been listed? Ferraro et al have answered this question by matching each listed species with one or more unlisted species that are substantially identical to the listed one. They do this match in terms of scientific, political, and charismatic features influencing the decision to list. For example, a charismatic, critically endangered species located in a state whose inhabitants strongly favor environmental policies is matched with one or more unlisted species that have the same attributes. The authors then compare the performance of the listed species with the performance of their matched but unlisted “twins.” Ferraro et al are limited by the available data for the study of native terrestrial and freshwater vertebrates that have full species status; even so, they are able to closely track over time the performance of 135 listed species and 295 unlisted but matching species.The results are striking: For the overwhelming majority of listed species—those that receive little funding for recovery—listing under the ESA markedly reduces the species’ chances of recovery, compared to their unlisted twins. For the 35 or so well-funded species, recovery chances have been enhanced, but it is recovery expenditures, not listing per se, that is doing the work.
One weakness of this study is that the authors do not examine whether alternative types of recovery fund-ing make a difference in the expected survival of a species. For example, funding data are not separated by source (state and local versus federal), nor is the exact use of the funds distinguished. It would be valuable to know, for example, whether habitat acquisition was more or less protective than is enforcement spending. Similarly, one cannot rule out the chance that some funding creates the illusion of protection because it simply results in the discovery of more members of the listed species.
It may seem odd that a law ostensibly designed to protect species could end up harming them. Yet there are at least two mechanisms through which this may occur. First, there is the well-known “shoot, shovel, and shut up” response to the ESA: When species on private land are listed, property owners may attempt to rid themselves of the species to avoid government restrictions on the use of their land.
But there is a more subtle effect that may be at work here. Some species are under threat from other non-human species or from climate-forced habitat change, rather than from assaults by landowners. The best long-term hope for these species may be proactive assistance (e.g., control of exotic species) from the owners of the land on which they reside. As Wilcove and Chen (1998) noted, “maintenance-dependent” species such as these can disappear without the landowner ever lifting a finger. In fact, they may disappear precisely because of landowner inaction—inaction the owner may find attractive if a private recovery program undertaken by the owner would invite intrusion by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
This brings us back to the importance of species-specific recovery expenditures. Enforcement activities might well deter active hostility toward listed species on private land. But only spending for programs such as habitat acquisition is likely to boost private efforts to aid maintenancedependent species.
Although Ferraro et al have left some important loose ends, their message is ominous. The ESA does not merely fail to provide widespread species protection; it is positively harmful for most endangered species. Given the widely acknowledged costs of the ESA, perhaps it is time to change the way we think about—and behave toward—species conservation.
Ferraro, P. J., C. McIntosh, and M. Ospina. 2007. The Effectiveness of the U.S. Endangered Species Act: An Econometric Analysis Using Matching Methods. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 54: 245–61.
Wilcove, D. S. and L. Y. Chen. 1998. Management Costs for Endangered Species. Conservation Biology 12: 1405–07.
Daniel K. Benjamin is a PERC senior fellow and Alumni Distinguished Professor at Clemson University. This column, “Tangents,” investigates policy implications of recent academic research. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.