academic environmental studies   macalester college
The Endangered Species Act




How it works


Recovery Plans and Delisting

Critical Habitat

Habitat Conservation Plans

Controversy: Is the ESA Effective?

Criticism of the ESA--from both sides

Is the ESA biologically unsound?

Private landowners


Links and References


Criticism of the ESA--from both sides

The Endangered Species Act is far from perfect. At times alienating both conservation biologists and property owners, can the ESA meet its goals—to protect species and the habitats that support them—without self-destructing? Outlined below are a few of the arguments attacking the Endangered Species Act.

Is the Endangered Species Act biologically unsound?

According to some conservation biologists, the Endangered Species Act really only serves to protect "charismatic megafauna," those high-profile species, rather than overall biodiversity (Rohlf). They claim the Act overlooks the interactivity and interconnectedness of biodiversity, particularly overlooking certain keystone species. Although the term "higher" life form was stricken from the Act in 1970s, the mood remains. 

Instead, the Act tends to focus on the immediacy of threats to a species, what many deem the "emergency room" approach to biodiversity conservation (Scott et al). This approach "expends inordinate effort and resources on a few species that, by the time they are finally listed as endangered or threatened, may be too far gone to save" (Rohlf). Emergency efforts are not taken until community numbers are dangerously low, funding is insufficient to gather necessary data, recovery plans are not developed soon enough or not enacted at all. The language of the Endangered Species Act also give the USFWS and NOAA Fisheries substantial latitude to make listing decisions as they see fit, without outside input.

Because of these shortfalls of the Endangered Species Act, many conservation biologists have argued for expanding the Act to protect not just threatened species, but threatened ecosystems, communities and habitats as well. Rohlf suggests that habitat protection approach has greater potential to trigger actions before populations are endangered. “It should also be able to deal better with metapopulation dynamics and to lead to region-wide planning of systems of reserves that could maintain viable populations of most species," he explains. But there is one problem: there is little consensus surrounding the actual definitionof or established taxonomy for ecosystem, community, habitat, and other biological buzzwords. This, too, leads to an often unwelcome mingling of science and politics, "injecting political and economic considerations into a process of making what by law are supposed to be biological decisions" (Rohlf). Orains suggests a system that identifies and provides clear criteria for delineation of all communities that occur repeatedly across the landscapes and seascapes of the United States. He also suggests the system have predictive power for describing relationships among species and communities, and "the system must correspond sufficiently well to distributions of species that protecting representatives of the types has a high probability of maintaining the nation's biological diversity."  But he warns that any classification system of ecological units is sure to be highly contentious: "the coarser the classification, the fewer the sites that need to be protected."

Private landowners

"One of the clear weaknesses of the ESA is," according to Environmental Defense's Michael Bean [via Curtis and Davison], "that 'it has not promoted a happy marriage' between its goals and the goals of these smaller landowners; 'more often, it has prompted the sort of bitter acrimony more typical of a nasty divorce.'" Although the private property rights movement began to gain strength in the early- to mid-1990s, "its inspiration dates to the early 1980s, when the list of endangered and threatened species began to interfere with activities on privately owned lands" (Burgess). Private property owners argued that the law was insensitive to people. The case of the northern spotted owl, listed in 1990 and citing loss of old-growth habitat as the primary threat, sparked a bitter controversy between loggers and mill owners and environmentalists in California and the Pacific Northwest. The logging industry blamed the owl's listing for a loss of between 30,000 and 168,000 jobs.

Environmentalists countered that logging jobs have been declining since the turn of the century and that the Endangered Species Act is certainly not to blame. This assertion was corroborated by a study done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that suggest that the decline in jobs was already in progress because of dwindling old-growth forest harvests and the automation of the lumber industry.

Despite what many landowners view to be an unyielding law, presidential administrations in the last ten years have enacted legislation intending to "allay fears about the regulatory consequences of having listed species on their land and to encourage the conservation of these species." In addition to Habitat Conservation Plans, two other approaches are the "no surprises" and "safe harbors" policies. The "no surprises" rule assures private landowners that if 'unforeseen circumstances' arise, the USFWS or NOAA Fisheries 'will not require the commitment of additional land, water or financial compensation or additional restrictions on the use of land, water, or other natural resources beyond the levels otherwise agreed to in the conservation plan, without the consent of the permittee.' The "safe harbor” provision encourages voluntary species management by assuring the landowner that no additional regulatory restrictions will be imposed in the future if the lands are returned to a pre-determined baseline condition (Curtis and Davison).

According to Rohlf, the USFWS "refused to expressly incorporate species' importance within ecosystems as a listing priority when it rewrote its listing priority guidelines in 1983."

"This is not a scientific issue; it is a moral issue. The deprivation and oppression of thens of thousands of timber-dependent families cannot be justified by any science known to man. Logging is not a job; it is who we are....You may not know what it is like to see everything you a hve worked for all your life sacrificed to the god of environmentalism; but I do. You may not know what it is like to go to bed hungry; but I do. The Endangered Species Act is referred to as the 'pit bull' of environmental laws for good reason. It is vicious, cruel and unrelenting."
-Barbara Mossman, spokesperson for the American Loggers Solidarity


Macalester College 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105  USA  651-696-6000
Comments and questions to