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)

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It’s been very effective, so then the question becomes which is which: Are you saving species to preserve the land, or the land to preserve the species?

But you could safely say that preserving the land has prevented extinctions, right?

It’s really helped. But the problem is that, if you look at the recoveries that have occurred, all of the species that have recovered have recovered due to relatively simple problems.

Like removing DDT from their ecosystem (Congress banned it for agricultural uses in 1972)?

DDT is the perfect example, or the introduction of an exotic species, or overhunting. With the American alligator, hunters were just taking thousands of them to make them into boots. Stop shooting alligators, and they come back like crazy. Now they’re everywhere again.

It’s much harder for species that have lost large portions of their habitat to come back even if you set aside areas with the intention of restoring and preserving habitat. It’s never really the same, because the land is changing even within the reserves, the climate is changing, all this other sort of stuff is going on.

Is it a too-far-gone situation, or are their ways to improve the recovery of these species?

There's probably a spectrum. There are some animals that, if we expanded their range and our imagination with what we could do to establish partnerships with private landowners, we could really, really help. There are others that you could maybe help somewhat, but it’s going to be a pretty tough go. And then there are other species that seem like, for the long-term, they’re probably going to be really dependent on a pretty intensive set of management strategies to keep them afloat. 

Your book talks about the lack of flexibility allowed by the ESA, about how experimental but potentially successful recovery techniques are few and far between. Why is that sort of adaptive management hard to implement?

The problem is that the idea of adaptive management came along in the late 1970s and 1980s, which was after all of the major environmental laws were passed. So the concerns that drove the legislation of the 1960s and ’70s aren’t the same concerns that people are dealing with now.


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