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Opinion Yes, the Endangered Species Act should be reformed

A gray wolf, which has federal protections from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species. (Gary Kramer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Associated Press )

Last week, Republicans in Congress turned their anti-regulation fervor to a law that has long bothered the GOP: the Endangered Species Act. Over the course of a two-hour meeting, the lawmakers lampooned the ESA — designed to identify and protect organisms threatened by extinction — as a failure and a power grab by the federal government to control land. At one point in the meeting, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) lamented the fact that only a small portion of the species identified as threatened or endangered have ever been delisted: “As a doctor, if I admit 100 patients to the hospital and only three recover enough under my treatment to be discharged, I would deserve to lose my medical license.”

That metaphor is misleading. About 1 percent of the 2,000 species included in the ESA have been delisted because they recovered. But recovering a species from the brink of extinction takes decades of intervention — the ESA is only 44 years old.

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Regardless, this critique does touch on a huge weakness in the law, if only indirectly. We need to allocate more resources to protecting species — particularly those on private lands — if we ever want hope of saving the bulk of organisms threatened by extinction. If Republicans are serious about recovering endangered species, they should consider experimenting with ways to make it easier for landowners to cooperate with the government to conserve species.

Despite the panicked response to the meeting from environmentalists, the law governing our conservation of threatened species is far from perfect. It’s been estimated that about three-quarters of the species listed under the ESA reside on private land. Conservation research has found that endangered species living on private land are more difficult to protect and more likely to be in decline. They’re also more difficult to study, as landowners are often unwilling to cooperate with conservationists for fear that they will restrict what they can do on their own property.

Because such species are heavily regulated under the ESA, the presence of, for example, a red-cockaded woodpecker can devalue property and encourage landowners to destroy natural habitats before the government steps in to protect them. This practice — often referred to as “shoot, shovel and shut up” — severely threatens our conservation efforts.

There’s no way of getting around it: The incentive structure of the ESA needs to be reconsidered. Neal Wilkins, president and chief executive of the East Wildlife Foundation in Texas, has studied these problems for years and has found that landowners are an underutilized resource in conservation. He argues that the federal government should consider offering forms of compensation to those who contribute to the cause.

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“We need to turn the presence of endangered species into an asset,” Wilkins said. “If it becomes an economic advantage, people will overproduce. That’s the story of land use in this nation.”

Small-scale compensation systems have already shown to be effective. One program carried out by the Army at Fort Hood successfully protected the habitats of golden-cheeked warblers by creating a credit system with private landowners that helped offset the cost of conservation. An evaluation of the program found that landowners who contributed to it saw the program as efficient and beneficial. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: Landowners often see themselves as stewards of their property and want to preserve its legacy and resource value.

For too long, the federal government has used the ESA as a powerful legal stick — pitting the environment against private interests. But we’re in need of some effective carrots as well. Congress may need to allocate more resources for compensation programs, but it’s clear plenty of landowners are willing to contribute to the effort.

Half a century ago, a Republican administration under President Richard Nixon committed the nation to protecting organisms from being wiped off the face of the planet due to human activities. Today we face what scientists have begun calling the “sixth mass extinction” event in world history. It’s up to a Republican administration now to decide if we’re willing to continue taking its role in protecting wildlife seriously.

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