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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One of the big concerns of the ESA and other laws of that time was just to develop more transparency around the process, since there weren't any established protocols then. When lawmakers are looking for transparency, flexibility is not the first thing on their mind—it might even be the last thing on their mind. What they wanted was a step-wise process that’s deliberate, that’s plotting, where they can actually watch what local, state, and federal agencies are doing in real time and, if the agencies are making decisions that are arbitrary and capricious, they can be taken to federal court. But one person’s arbitrary and capricious is another person’s flexible and adaptive management.

And with endangered species, you don’t want to do an experiment that kills animals. Think of the bad press!

There was a condor chick killed in the early ’80s when wildlife biologists were studying it, and that was a big scandal. So those things have happened before, and people are really wary of that, but it might be the only way to move forward.

Why doesn’t just saving habitat work out?

Some of the species that have had the largest areas preserved are still declining. The two best-known examples of that are the desert tortoise and the northern spotted owl. They are declining for different reasons—the regions are different, the economies are really different, the ecosystems are really different—but those are two vertebrate species that have had enormous areas set aside on their behalf.

The spotted owl wasn’t doing so well anyway for a number of reasons, but then another problem arose: the bard owl, which is indigenous to the Eastern U.S. but has been spreading across the continent because of all the land use changes. It’s closely related to the spotted owl, but it’s bigger, more aggressive and more adaptable. It breeds with them, it eats them, it kills their young, it usurps their habitat.

So now, we had these enormous political controversies. The government set aside all these areas, and people still feel like it took away their livelihoods and their communities. The ESA promised to bring back the species and others, and now this other owl comes in and messes everything up. The conservationists who go into this in the first place got into it because they wanted to save owls, and now they’re being faced with the idea of shooting one owl to protect another.

Is your book the first to point this out?

No. What I would say is that my book is the first to explain how we got into this situation from a historical perspective. How did we get to this predicament in the first place? It turns out that it goes back a long time. It’s kind of illuminating to realize that this didn’t start with the ESA in 1973. Americans  have been thinking about this stuff and trying to figure it out for a long time [since at least the 1870s]. There’s a reason scientists make the assumptions we do, and that’s because the assumptions have been built into the way we’ve thought about things for a century.

And they’re partially true.


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