BOOKS: The Endangered Species Act: Time for a Change

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1995:

The Endangered Species Act: Time for a Change, by Thomas Lambert and Robert J. Smith.
Center for the Study of American Business (Washington University, Campus Box 1208, One Brookings Drive, St.
Louis, MO 63130-4899), 1994. 63 pages. Free on request.
Thomas Lambert and Robert J. Smith evidently
subscribe to the theory that the Endangered Species Act “is
being used for little more than the achievement of de facto
national land use control and the regulation of economic
development.” Though they avoid saying so themselves,
they quote and paraphrase others to this effect so often that
one is inclined to start looking under the bed for the “out-of-
work Soviet economists” that they suggest through another
quotation might be influencing U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service data analysis. Either that, or bolt the door against
the National Biological Survey, which is––again through
unrefuted quotations––equated with an “eco-Gestapo.”

If one can get past the paranoia, however,
Lambert and Smith do offer a useful critique of the ESA,
and a suggestion for restructuring it that should achieve more
habitat protection at less cost to taxpayers and property own-
ers. As they point out, the invocation of the ESA to freeze
all economic use of property has produced the “shoot, shov-
el, and shut up” syndrome, whereby land owners destroy
wildlife and habitat rather than risk losing their investment
because of the discovery of an endangered species. This
increases the likelihood of losing species, increases the cost
of species recovery, and leads to much costly litigation.
Instead of fining property owners for harming
endangered species and habitat, Lambert and Smith argue,
the government should reward those who practice conserva-
tion. They cite with approval Defenders of Wildlife’s recent
offer of $5,000 to any rancher near Yellowstone National
Park who can prove that wolves have produced a litter on his
or her land. “Instead of penalizing property owners for hav-
ing listed species on their land,” Lambert and Smith contin-
ue, “why not pay them? Starting with a base date, the Fish
and Wildlife Service could announce for each species that at
the end of X years, every land owner or manager will be paid
an appropriate fee for each additional pair of organisms.
Reward amounts could be adjusted for each different species
in order to reflect the costs of harboring specimens of that
species…The basic strategy is to turn endangered species into
valuable assets. The result of rewarding property owners for
preserving endangered species would be more saved species,
and, as landowners would now have an incentive to report
sighting of listed species, better information on the location
and extent of endangerment. There would be less need to
fear attempts to catalog species, such as the National
Biological Survey. Some might object,” they continue,
“that a preservation bounty system would be too costly and
that the federal government does not have the money to pay
landowners to raise endangered species.” Yet, “For the
amount spent by the government on the Florida scrub jay in
1991, the FWS could have paid bounties of $5,000 per pair
of birds on 7,800 birds. Between 1989 and 1991, govern-
ment expenditures on the Stephens’ kangaroo rat totaled $23
million. At $5,000 per pair of rats, this money could have
saved 9,200 rats. There are approximately 10,000 northern
spotted owls known to exist today. At $5,000 a pair, it
would cost the government $25 million to double the owl’s
population. Because saving owl habitat is expensive, the
government might have to offer bounties greater than $5,000
per pair. The bounties could be increased significantly,
however, before the system would cost anywhere near the
$21 billion to $46 billion that the present recovery plan is
expected to cost.”
ESA administration is also notoriously inefficient.
As Lambert and Smith point out, “The backlog of species
lacking recovery plans is quite severe and is essentially a bot-
tleneck slowing down the process of evaluating candidate
species.” They suggest that this could be rectified by intro-
ducing a system whereby “individuals and private wildlife
management organizations could bid for wildlife recovery
jobs.” In effect, land conservancies could fund their own
operations by acquiring contracts to protect and propagate
the endangered species residing on the land in question.
The Lambert and Smith case is familiar to me
because I argued for exactly the same approaches in 1975-
1976, as ghostwriter for the late Tobias Grether’s privately
published philosophical tome H o m o c r o n o s. Unfortunately,
while Grether later advised former president Ronald Reagan
on German-American affairs, he apparently never got a
word in edgewise about conservation, his true passion. I
meanwhile made my own parallel case for incentive-based
conservation in the natural history journal Snowy Egret
(1978), and in my 1980 book Freedom Comes From Human
Beings. Nobody listened. The environmental establishment
then as now held that any amendment to the ESA on behalf
of landowners would weaken species protection. Most ESA
critics contributed to that stance by making plain that their
object was indeed dismantling the ESA. Incentive-based
conservation was left to land conservancies, modeled after
The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited, the proto-
types, which have enjoyed exponential growth all this while.
Years of experience have now demonstrated in
practice the points Grether and I tried to make then in theory.
Lambert and Smith have meanwhile grabbed the attention of
policymakers including Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich
In so doing, they have created a window of opportunity for
those of us who care about endangered species to restructure
the ESA so as to more effectively protect rare animals and
plants while disarming the wise-use wiseguys who use con-
flicts with property rights as a pretext for doing away with
species protection.
Conclude Lambert and Smith, “The purpose of this
report has not been to deny the importance or worthiness of
protecting endangered species.” However, “the worst enemy
of federal species protection is a disenchanted public.
Fortunately, Americans seem to be genuinely concerned
about the plight of threatened and endangered species.” At
the same time, “Increasingly, citizens feel a sense of betray-
al and outrage that the government is violating their constitu-
tional rights and taking their private property without a n y
compensation, let alone just compensation. The erosion of
popular support for endangered and threatened species could
prove fatal to the Endangered Species Act. To avoid this
tragedy, Congress must acknowledge the difficulties with
the present ESA and amend the Act,” to introduce “provi-
sions and structures that will actually preserve wildlife and
habitat, while protecting private property rights.”
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