December 28th marks half a century since President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) into law. It passed with near unanimous support in Congress and has polled well with the American people, with approval hovering near 80%. 

The ESA is undoubtedly an important conservation tool credited with saving 99% of species from extinction. Alas, only 3% (or 57) of 1,732 listed domestic endangered or threatened species have successfully recovered and been delisted from the ESA List. This is well below the projected recovery goal of 300 species initially set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). 

The agency says the ESA’s “ultimate goal is to ‘recover’ species so they no longer need protection under the Endangered Species Act.” Why, then, does this provision of the law remain underutilized?  

The Biden administration and preservationist environmentalists attribute shortcomings to an absence of adequate federal funding. But money is not an issue for the ESA, with a budget of $331 million. Science Magazine argued, “Money is often poured into costly long shots or charismatic organisms.” 

The real culprit, instead, is distrust invited by onerous federal rulemaking that disincentivizes landowner cooperation and ESA abuses by radical litigious groups making a business of “sue and settle” litigation to keep fully recovered species perpetually listed. 

Over 66% of listed species currently reside on private property. The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) reports that endangered species listings often penalize landowners who already conserve habitat for imperiled critters. The ESA, the organization added, doesn’t reward their efforts and, instead “punishes them, reducing land values and constricting permitted land uses.” As we’ve noted here at IWF, true conservation efforts succeed with private stakeholder cooperation. 

A new Western Caucus Foundation report likened the federal law’s shortcomings to hospitals that engage in medical malpractice: 

In reality, the endangered species program and inclusion on the List may be likened to a hospital where patients check in but rarely check out. Of the relatively few that do, some are heralded as recovered. More often than not, the reality is the species should never have been listed. When such species are declared ‘recovered,’ it could be likened to a doctor claiming to have cured a patient upon discovering the patient had been misdiagnosed as in poor health. Such patients would be no more cured than some of these species have ‘recovered.’ Like doctors engaged in this malpractice, federal officials have repeatedly made claims over decades that are devoid of scientific integrity.

In October, the USFWS invoked the ESA to delist 26 species that it has deemed extinct and unrecoverable. Last month, the agency unveiled a final rule to list Lower-48 wolverines as a threatened species using climate modeling and not population data. 

The seminal law requires much-needed modernization today to bring it into the 21st century, reduce conflicts, foster more cooperation, and recover more species. 

To learn about the Endangered Species Act, catch up HERE.