Proponents of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) claim it encourages conservation and leads to species protection. However, this is not always the case.
For example, landowners at the greatest risk of developing the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker habitats were more likely to harvest their forestlands earlier than normal out of fear of habitat development. This trend still held true when timber prices were low, in order to avoid costly $200,000 fines associated with even a single woodpecker colony. This resulted in the loss of several thousand acres of potential habitat for a species largely dependent upon private land for survival. An even more shocking example of the ESA endangering species occurred in Riverside County, California, where residents were prevented from clearing firebreaks due to ESA restrictions on the land that prohibited modifying the Stephens’ kangaroo rat habitat. When fires arose in the area, as the residents knew they would, not only were residents’ homes destroyed, but the rat’s habitat was as well.
When the ESA was originally drafted in 1973, Congress began with the premise that the most basic threat to endangered species was destruction of their habitat. Ironically, after the passage of the Act, not only was the primary threat not controlled, but it became an arguably greater danger to threatened and endangered species. The ESA is not fulfilling this preservation purpose, and is actually encouraging habitat destruction by making these habitats liabilities, instead of assets, for private landowners.
Since the majority of species that are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act rely on private land for all, or some, of their habitat, the ESA can only succeed if private landowners cooperate with conservation efforts. Too often, however, the federal government provides landowners with no incentive to do so. When a private landowner loses the use of their land through discovery of an endangered species or a habitat, or has their land devalued, there is no compensation. To a landowner, this means that the presence of an endangered species and/or habitat becomes a liability.
Without concentrated efforts by private landowners to conserve endangered species, meaningful progress will never be achieved. However, private landowners will have no incentive to participate actively in these conservation efforts until they are removed from the hands of the federal government and private landowners are no longer punished for their contributions.