Will the Endangered Species Act Survive?

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Last June, an American bald eagle, found months earlier with a broken wing and nursed back to health, was set free in Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay. As the majestic creature soared into the sky, it carried even more than the species' usual symbolic weight: The bird had been given the name "Hope," and its release was timed to coincide with an announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the American bald eagle--that venerated emblem of the nation--was no longer "endangered," merely "threatened." In 1974, there were only 791 known nesting pairs of bald eagles in the continental United States, but now, 20 years later, there are about 4,000. Credit was given to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, which protects animal and plant species at risk of extinction and their "critical habitats." The controversial law, the Fish and Wildlife Service wanted it understood had worked.

In fact, however, it appears that the ESA--which is now up for reauthorization in Congress--has not been very effective. In an evaluation in Science (Nov. 12, 1993), Timothy H. Tear and Patricia H. Hayward of the University of Idaho's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Resources, along with two colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, J. Michael Scott and Brad Griffith, write: "Few [endangered] species have actually recovered because of the ESA." Even the bald eagle may not owe its survival to the ESA. Thomas Lambert and Robert J. Smith, in the Center for the Study of American Business's Policy Study No. 119 (March 1994), contend that it was not the ESA but the 1972 ban on DDT, a pesticide thought by scientists to interfere with the eagle's reproductive capacity, that saved the bird.

There is no question that the ESA, along with earlier laws, has fallen far short in its rescue mission. Of the 1,354 species (822 native to the United States) listed as endangered or threatened since 1966, only 19 have been removed from the list, including eight that were listed in error and seven that became extinct. The four apparent success stories were a plant found in Utah and three birds native to an island in the western Pacific. A 1990 General Accounting Office (GAO) report found that more than 80 percent of the listed endangered species were still declining. A 1992 GAO report found that federal authorities had managed to designate "critical habitats" for only 105, or 16 percent, of 651 listed species.

Recovery plans are supposed to be made for each of the threatened or endangered species; about 400 such plans have been drawn up. Examining those available in 1991, the Science authors found that 28 percent of the species for which population data could be obtained "had recovery goals set at or below the existing population size at the time the plan was written." The original recovery plan for the endangered California condor, for example, estimated there were 60 birds in the wild--and set a population of 50 birds as the target for recovery. The Science authors surmise "that political, social, or economic considerations" might have been involved in the determinations.

Proponents of the law argue that enforcement has been inadequate. Nancy Kubasek, a professor of legal studies at Bowling Green State University, and two colleagues, writing in an 820-page issue of Environmental Law (April 1994) devoted to the subject, assert that the $30-40 million that Congress annually allotted to administer the endangered species program during the Bush years "clearly" was not enough. In the same issue, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt contends that there has been a "willful failure" on the part of the public officials charged with administering the law. …