December 19, 2013

The ESA at 40

By Damien M. Schiff Senior Attorney

Next week, the Endangered Species Act turns 40 (we’ve already hosted a blogfestschrift on the topic).  Nature has a conversation piece this week featuring the thoughts of four prominent wildlife and conservation experts on the ESA’s track record.  Usually these pieces tend to overplay the statute’s successes and minimize or ignore its failures and its serious shortcomings.  Hence, I was somewhat surprised to read the comments of Professor Amy Ando of the University of Illinois, who reasonably argues that the ESA’s approach of “save every species no matter the cost” is often counterproductive.  She notes that the Act is effective at saving species like the American bison that are threatened by discrete, manageable factors.  But the Act, she observes, is rather ineffective at helping species that are threatened by diffuse threats (such as climate change).  She goes on to criticize the ESA’s one-size-fits-all approach to preservation, observing that “[m]andatory expenditures perceived by the public as having little value could exhaust society’s desire to commit resources to conservation and actually reduce the sum of government and private citizens’ conservation efforts,” highlighting the delta smelt controversy as such an example.  She concludes that species protection “should be justified case by case, according to the value society places on the species, either for the part it plays in a natural community, or because of the place it holds in people’s hearts and lives.”  If a professor of environmental and natural resources economics can advocate in Nature for this different approach to the ESA, perhaps ESA reform is not so pie-in-the-sky as one might have otherwise thought.

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