The Endangered Species Act Doesn’t Need “Reform”

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Photo by JasonOndreicka/iStock

Like most Americans, in school I learned that Congress functions best when people with different political philosophies work together. While the ideal of reaching across the aisle is still treated with reverence, bipartisanship only works in practice if there’s a genuine issue worth addressing. When cooperation is invoked to push one side into addressing a “problem” that doesn’t exist, calls for bipartisanship often hide a deeply partisan agenda. 

So it is with the Endangered Species Act (ESA), whose great successes and minor flaws have been inverted by a handful of development interests and their allies in Congress to paint a picture of a law in crisis. This distorted picture was front and center during a series of recent House and Senate hearings that tried to build a case that everyone agrees the ESA is broken and that members of Congress need to sit down together and fix it. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Senator John Barrasso (a Republican from Wyoming), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee and held one of these recent hearings, offered this message in a February 26 opinion piece in his home-state Casper Star Tribune. Knowing there is no public clamor to weaken or repeal a successful and very popular law, his article hymned the virtues of “bipartisan” ESA changes. Senator Barrasso’s push is part of a broader Republican effort to give a reasonable, let’s-work-together sheen to what is actually a calculated crusade to dismantle one of our bedrock environmental standards. 

By any reasonable measure, the ESA has been a remarkable success. The law has prevented the extinction of more than 99 percent of the plants and animals that have received its protection. Few laws in American history have so thoroughly achieved their goals. Nor has the law stifled economic growth, as its detractors claim. Since it was enacted in 1973, the U.S. economy has more than tripled in size from just over $5 trillion to more than $16 trillion in GDP. 

To get around these inconvenient truths, critics apply unusual tests to describe the ESA as a failure. That’s what Senator Barrasso did when he pointed out that only 3 percent of listed species have been removed from ESA protection since the law was enacted. 

Rather than drawing the obvious conclusion—that species recovery takes time, especially when unsustainable development has wiped out wildlife habitats like old-growth forest, wetlands, and native prairie—critics say the law is broken and must be rewritten. Senator Barrasso argues that a physician should lose his license if only 3 percent of his patients recover. The better analogy is that the ESA is like an emergency doctor who, so far, has saved 99 percent of the patients wheeled into the emergency room. And the prognosis for the rest of the patients is good: 90 percent of listed species are on track to recover on the timetable set by scientists. 

By choking off funding for the agencies charged with ESA implementation, opponents of the law make it harder to accomplish their stated goals of faster species recovery and delisting. Equally unhelpful is their tendency to fabricate conspiracy theories to undermine public faith in the law.

One of the most pervasive ESA myths is the “sue and settle” theory that citizen groups abuse the courts to influence the outcome of the ESA process. That unhinged notion was comprehensively debunked in a recent Government Accountability Office report that found that ESA deadline lawsuits and settlements have little bearing on listing decisions. 

Why engage in a misinformation campaign against a popular environmental law? Follow the money. Weakening the ESA would allow for sensitive wildlife habitats to be opened to mining, oil and gas drilling, and commercial logging—activities that Republican orthodoxy supports regardless of the costs to the environment and the millions of Americans who enjoy wildlife watching and other outdoor activities on our public lands. 

To win a fight on behalf of their financial backers, Republicans have decided to tell a story about bipartisanship that cynically appeals to our better nature and ignores the reality on the ground. The reality is that the ESA doesn’t need “reform,” especially of the kind that’s being offered. 

To those seeking to sit down and work together to develop an ESA “reform” bill, my answer is “no.”

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