Laws can worsen the problem they aim to fix. For example, in colonial India, the British government placed a bounty on cobras to rid Delhi of a snake infestation. When entrepreneurs began to breed cobras to cash in on the bounty, the government scrapped the program. So the snake breeders released their cobras into the streets. The net result: more cobras.
Based on forty years under the Endangered Species Act, it looks like government doesn’t just help the creatures it wants to hurt—it often hurts the ones it tries to help. Because of the frightful burdens that the ESA imposes on private property owners, the Act encourages behavior that harms protected species. The arrival of an endangered animal can restrict use of private property and deflate pocketbooks. To keep their property free of government meddling, land owners often make their property inhospitable for endangered animals. For example, owners of forested land might harvest timber more often than they would otherwise to keep endangered owls from nesting there. This consequence of the ESA is especially ironic, since habitat destruction is a prime cause of endangerment. Folks also stay tight-lipped about the presence of endangered animals on their property so that regulators don’t swoop in. This makes it difficult to monitor species. And property owners may prefer to kill endangered animals on their land than risk punitive property restrictions. In short, colonial India may have had better luck with its cobra problem if it had listed the snake under the ESA.
A new policy paper from the Reason Foundation offers an alternative to the ESA’s man vs. beast mentality. This voluntary system, called the “Endangered Species Reserve Program,” would compensate property owners who protect species, create inviting habitats, or facilitate reproduction. Funding could come from cuts in wasteful spending, such as agricultural subsidies that harm conservation. Property owners would no longer face incentives to destroy hospitable habitat, rid their land of endangered animals, or hide animals’ presence from regulators. A law based on incentives would protect species in practice. And respect property rights.