It was supposed to be the savior of fish, wildlife and plants in peril. These days, however, the Endangered Species Act has become a political football: one that critics insist is in desperate need of reform. It has also been the basis for countless lawsuits, costing state and federal agencies millions.
But as Joel Pederson, NWTF director of lands and policy said, “It may not be perfect, but it’s the best thing we have.”
But for all the criticism, there’s no question the ESA has played a role in the recovery of such iconic species as bald eagles, grizzly bears and brown pelicans. Of the species listed since 1966, less than 1 percent have gone extinct.
Although keeping those species from completely disappearing has been successful, just 36 species listed since 1973 have been classified as recovered.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed more than 1,200 species as endangered, including 78 birds, 79 mammals and 92 fish species, and many are on the watch list.
Signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973, the ESA made it illegal to take or harm listed species, damage their habitat or otherwise impact the listed species’ well-being.
“There’s no question the ESA has been a beneficial tool for conservation since it was enacted, but we believe it could be improved,” Pedersen said. “For one, we would like to get the courts out of the system. Legal challenges are often unwarranted and filed after a species has met the recovery goals set by FWS scientists. It should also protect landowners on the front end and do more to help them save habitat on their land.”
For hunters, the biggest and most obvious impact is an endangered species can no longer be hunted. While there has not been any direct loss of hunting opportunities due to the ESA, Wyoming Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott said there have been plenty of indirect impacts. He pointed to the decline of elk hunting opportunities where wolf numbers are high. Gray wolves were reintroduced into parts of the Rocky Mountains in 1995 and given protection under the ESA. As wolf numbers increased, predation on elk increased and state wildlife agencies had to cut the number of elk licenses where wolves and elk share territory.
In the case of sage grouse, which were being considered for listing under the ESA in 2010, there could have been a much wider impact to hunters than simple loss of opportunity. The birds are as much a part of the Western landscape as pronghorn antelope and mule deer, and they are facing many of the same challenges. Habitat loss has reduced their range from 355,000 square miles to less than half that.
“Since much of their habitat is on federal land, it would not have been out of the realm of possibility that some of the most critical habitat would have been closed to access in one form or another,” said Ed Arnett, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership senior scientist.
Perhaps a larger impact, Talbott said, is the cost to state wildlife agencies charged with managing endangered species. He said Wyoming Game and Fish spent $2 million on grizzly bear management in 2015, alone, including $1 million on livestock depredation reimbursements. His state has also spent millions on wolf management since they were reintroduced into Wyoming.
“That money came out of our agency, which is funded almost entirely by hunting and fishing license revenue and tax revenue on hunting and fishing equipment,” Talbott said. “So, hunters are directly funding endangered species. That money could have gone to any number of things that (would have) directly benefitted hunters.”
But hunter conservationists do care about those nongame species. The recovery of so many wildlife species throughout the 20th century is proof. So are the countless nongame programs run by state wildlife agencies that are willingly funded by hunters and anglers.
Pedersen acknowledged that the Act has been expensive for some states and a burden to landowners, but he thinks it has been a net gain for wildlife conservation overall. Species that aren’t actually listed as endangered or threatened, but are otherwise in peril, benefit from conservation efforts directed at listed species.
“Habitat work done for red-cockaded woodpeckers is very good for turkeys, quail and other species like gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, so I think history will show that the ESA does play an important and necessary role in conservation,” Pedersen said. “In many ways, it’s virtually impossible to separate one species from another. They are all interconnected in one way or another.”
The big question remains; Is the ESA is an unnecessary burden on landowners, state wildlife agencies and even hunters? Conservationists have successfully restored pronghorn antelope, wild turkey, bison and elk numbers long before the Endangered Species Act.
Pedersen, however, isn’t sure that’s the best approach. The vast majority of listed species are not considered game animals, so it’s unlikely they would generate interest without federal intervention.
“The conservation model that has done such a good job of protecting game species hasn’t really been embraced by the general public for nongame species,” he said. “They aren’t willing to put their money where their mouth is, so-to-speak. We need to get conservation at the front of the conversation before a species is in peril. Until then, the Endangered Species Act is a valuable tool. It may not be perfect, but it’s the best thing we have.”