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Guest opinion: Changes to the Endangered Species Act will benefit endangered plants and animals

Changes to the Endangered Species Act announced this week are likely to make life better for endangered and threatened species, not worse.

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Bald eagle at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area.

Bald eagle at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area.

Ray Boren, Deseret News archives

Recently, the Department of the Interior announced changes to how it will enforce the Endangered Species Act. In response, multiple states have threatened to sue and a New York Times’ piece described the changes as “significantly weakening the nation’s bedrock conservation law.” Despite the backlash, the changes to the ESA are likely to benefit endangered species by creating stronger incentives for private landowners to get involved in conservation.

The Endangered Species Act protects animals and plants in danger of going extinct. It has been credited with saving some of America’s most iconic wildlife like the bald eagle, the grizzly bear and the American alligator. But despite these successes, only 2% of species have been delisted due to recovery. This success rate suggests the law has some room for improvement.

My research on conservation suggests that better involvement of private landowners in conservation efforts is a promising way to help more species recover. More than half of all endangered species rely on private land for the majority of their habitat, making private landowners a crucial piece of the conservation puzzle. 

In talking with private landowners, it’s difficult to walk away without being convinced that these individuals have a deep conservation ethic. Academic surveys bear this out, showing that a majority of landowners value conserving endangered species on their land. But under the current regulatory approach, landowners who would otherwise be interested in conservation can be discouraged by the possibility of restrictions and reduced property value that come along with having endangered species on their land.

Academic research has documented how a punitive regulatory approach hurts both landowners and endangered species alike. In North Carolina, landowners prematurely cleared forests to avoid attracting the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species whose presence would entail increased restrictions on logging. In Utah, 34% of surveyed landowners admitted they had taken action to discourage the threatened Utah prairie dog from inhabiting their land in order to avoid additional regulation. These examples suggest a punitive approach to protecting threatened and endangered species may be doing more harm than good.

Instead of punishing landowners for harming species, a more promising approach is to reward them for conserving species. Some of this week’s key changes to the ESA appear to address that issue by creating incentives to get private landowners more involved in conservation. 

One of the biggest changes announced is restoring a two-tiered approach to protecting endangered species. Currently, threatened species — those deemed likely to become endangered — receive the same style of protection as endangered species. After the change, the Interior Department’s officials will now have more options to rehabilitate threatened species’ populations. And, regulators can still determine on a case-by-case basis if protection for a threatened species should be at the same level as an endangered species.

Restoring the more tailored approach to protecting threatened and endangered species will create incentives for landowners to help threatened species avoid becoming endangered in the first place. That’s because keeping a species from becoming endangered will now come with the reward of fewer regulatory restrictions. The changes will also encourage private landowners to help endangered species improve because that improvement may now result in the reward in the form of a lower regulatory burden. 

Changes to the Endangered Species Act announced this week are likely to make life better for endangered and threatened species, not worse. Because so many species rely on private land for their habitat, cooperative conservation efforts that treat landowners as partners are likely to be the most successful at helping endangered species recover. This week’s changes are likely to do just that.

Megan Hansen is the research director at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University.