Endangered Species and Morality

·3 min read

This makes it pertinent to ask if the Endangered Species Act of 1973 is really working. Is it saving species? Are the benefits worth the costs? Is there a better way of saving species? Is saving species all that important anyway?

My own opinion is that saving rare species and their habitat is the most important environmental problem we face, even more important than the impact of global climate change on humans (which is likely to be small though it may put more species in danger of extinction). But my belief is based on a moral value: with the exception of species that pose grave dangers to humans (such as smallpox or polio), we shouldn’t have the moral right to make species go extinct. To paraphrase former National Park Service director Newton Drury, we are not so rich we can afford to extirpate species nor so poor that we have to.

Not everyone may share this moral value, which makes it all the more imperative that those who do rely on moral methods to save species. As passed by Congress in 1973, the Endangered Species Act put nearly all of the cost burden of saving species on whoever owned the land on which the species resided. While this supposedly made the act the strongest environmental law ever written, it was both immoral, because it made a few pay the cost of something that supposedly benefitted everyone, and unsuccessful, because landowners would often destroy potential habitat to avoid regulation.

Congress in 1982 softened the law a bit, allowing landowners to “incidentally take” (meaning either kill or harm the habitat of) an endangered plant or animal provided they had written a habitat conservation plan showing how they would protect species and had that plan approved by the Fish & Wildlife Service. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration created a “safe harbor” regulation promising that, once a habitat plan was approved, the government would not impose more costs on the landowners. Although these changes were improvements, they were like someone saying, “I’m going to stab you in the back with a six‐inch knife, but if you cooperate, I’ll use only a three‐inch knife.”

A review of Fish & Wildlife Service reports suggests that, even with the improvements, these policies have not worked well. Of the roughly 1,750 domestic plants and animals that have been declared to be endangered (meaning near extinction) or threatened (meaning likely to become endangered soon), only 48, or less than 3 percent, have recovered. Many of those were recovered due to actions that had nothing to do with the Endangered Species Act: bald eagles and peregrine falcons, for example, were primarily threatened by a pesticide, DDT, that the Environmental Protection Agency banned the year before the law was passed.

We can save more species by changing the law to use carrots rather than sticks. One way to do so would be to allow private ownership of fish and wildlife. Someone can own an endangered plant and care for that species but, under American common law, no one can own a wild fish or animal as long as it is alive. Allowing private ownership would make it possible for people who care about wildlife to do more to protect them.

Another way would be to create an endangered species trust fund or funds that would be used to protect habitat and give landowners incentives to protect species. I’ve previously suggested that the primary source of revenues for such funds could come from public land recreation and other user fees, which is appropriate because recreationists tend to care the most about saving rare species. Ending free recreation on public lands would also give private landowners incentives to manage their lands in ways that could generate recreation income, which would be good for fish & wildlife. For more information, see my policy brief that gives more details about problems with the existing Endangered Species Act and my proposals for reform.

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Tags: Think Tanks

Original Author: Randal O'Toole

Original Location: Endangered Species and Morality

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