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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They’re partially true, but we also are learning that the world is more complicated.

So if you had all the marbles, what’s your silver bullet solution?

There are a couple things we could do to the ESA to improve it. One is to create better arrangements so that landowners can be enrolled in the endangered species recovery programs.

From what I’ve seen over the years, despite the private property rights rhetoric, many landowners seem happy to help with species recovery and are actively involved.

There are a lot of great examples of this, such as the Paramount Farming Company's development of artificial dens for kit foxes in the San Joaquin Valley in 2002. It seems like every example is treated like a unique exception, and yet if you add them all together, there’s a trend there. So how can we take those examples and build them more into the policy in meaningful ways?

What else?

Another thing is that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has become bogged down with this critical habitat process. The ESA says that, when you list a species, you have to draw a map of its critical habitat—there’s a lot of debate about whether that is for its survival or its recovery—and, within that area, any project that will have a significant impact has to be reviewed.

That’s turned out to be hugely controversial, so there are people who have come up with ideas on how to make that more efficient and more transparent. So normalizing the critical habitat process would go a long way.

We also need better arrangements with the states. The ESA says that the states and federal government “should cooperate wherever practicable,” but it doesn’t say what that means. So how can you entice state fish and game agencies? They often have more credibility with the local populations, because they’re the ones that make sure there are ducks in the pond so you can go hunting next year. If we could do a better job with that, it would go a ways toward fixing things.

And then there’s flexibility.


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