Why the Endangered Species Act Is Broken, and How to Fix It

On the landmark species-saving law’s 40th anniversary, environmental historian Peter Alagona explains why it doesn’t quite work, and offers a path toward recovery

A group of critically endangered California condors near Zion National Park, Utah. (© Yva Momatiuk & John Eastcott / Minden Pictures/Corbis)

While a college student in the early 1990s at Northwestern, Peter Alagona became fascinated with the red-hot controversies swirling endangered species, from the California condor and desert tortoise to the northern spotted owl and black-footed ferret. As environmentalists and animal lovers pushed to do whatever it took to save them, there was strong resistance from the ranchers, loggers, and other communities threatened by the rigorous federal laws required to do so.

“I was watching this stuff unfold on a daily basis, wondering what the hell was going on, why it was so contentious, and why we couldn't figure it out,” recalls Alagona, now a professor of environmental history at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “It seemed like a zero sum game,” said Alagona, who saw few winners in such a convoluted process, “and, frankly, it was pretty confusing.”

Twenty years of investigation later, Alagona finally has some answers, and shares them in his first book, After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California, due out this month just in time for the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act and for Endangered Species Day on May 17.  Blending his cross-disciplinary career in history, environmental science and geography, the book uses the Golden State as a lens to detail the history of America's quest to save rare species, with a special focus on the aforementioned condor and tortoise as well as the delta smelt and San Joaquin kit fox.

Among other discoveries, Alagona reveals that, while the act has saved certain birds and beasts from utter extinction, it hasn't really helped many of the listed animals recover to sustainable population levels, which was the supposed mission of the 1973 law. Below, he discusses that and other findings, and helps chart a course for a more effective ESA in the decades to come.

Forty years on, how would you grade the Endangered Species Act (ESA)?

There are a lot of pundits out there who will tell you that it has either been a disaster or a huge success. The truth is that it has really been a mixed bag to date, and “to date” is a really short time. For species that took centuries to decline, 40 years is probably not enough time to recover.

But based on the data that’s out there right now, the take home message is that the Endangered Species Act has done a pretty good job, a really good job actually, of preventing extinctions. But it’s done a really poor job promoting the recovery of species that are on the list. 

Your book critiques the prevailing strategy of tying species recovery to habitat preservation, the idea of, “Let’s just set some land aside and nature will take care of itself.”

Or that some wildlife manager out there will restore it to its natural state. I don’t want to caricature people—it’s not as simple as that—but that’s the kind of ideology that we’ve developed, and it started a long time ago.

Well, it has been an effective tool for preserving land.


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