This December will mark the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), a vital piece of legislation that has been called one of the world's most effective environmental laws. But despite four decades of successes, the ESA remains poorly understood. Here are five of the biggest myths and misconceptions surrounding the law.
Myth # 1: It doesn't work
Critics of the ESA are fond of saying that only a handful of species protected by the act have ever recovered enough to be removed from the endangered species list. One of the most recent people to make this claim was U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R–Wyo.) who said last month, "We have a law where only 1 percent of the species that have been listed have actually been delisted. To me, that indicates a law that is failing in its ultimate goal, which is to list species, recover them and then delist them."
It is true that only 26 species have ever recovered enough to leave ESA protection, but preventing extinction in the face of numerous ongoing threats is a difficult task that can take generations to accomplish. "The reality is that many of the species that we have listed are facing decades or more of habitat loss and degradation," says Gary Frazer, assistant director for endangered species at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). "Getting them to the point where they no longer face extinction is very challenging and oftentimes a complex road."
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the plants and animals currently on the endangered species list are now stable and their populations are no longer in decline. "We view success as preventing a species from going extinct—to keep them from sliding further," Frazer says. "We've been very successful at that."
Myth # 2: It will take away your land
Some people fear that federal agents will swoop in to take control or the government will seize their homes or land if an endangered species turns up on their property. The FWS Alaska Region discusses this on their "Endangered Species Act—Demythified" Web page:
There is no reason a person would lose their home because an endangered species is on their property and we know of no situations in which this has occurred. It is illegal to harm or kill a threatened or endangered species whether it is on private or public land. However, even if a threatened or endangered species were inadvertently harmed on private land, it would not lead to the eviction of a homeowner from his or her home or property. Projects can occur on private land and if it is anticipated that a threatened or endangered species may be harmed, the landowner can work with a local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist to find the best solution.
Presence of a listed species on your land does not preclude projects or activities from happening on your land and does not grant access to your land by Federal employees.
This misconception appears to come from the portion of the ESA that designates so-called "critical habitat" for protected species. Critical habitats are simply geographic areas that contain the features necessary to the survival of a particular listed species, but many people mistakenly perceive them as inviolate nature reserves. In fact, critical habitat designations only affect actions by federal agencies or actions that the federal government funds or permits on those habitats. Although private land is often identified as critical habitat, that designation does not change or challenge property ownership. Critical habitat only describes the areas that are important to the recovery of a species.
Myth # 3: It kills jobs
Many foes characterize the ESA as being in direct opposition to economic activities (the oft-touted "lizards versus oil jobs" headlines). But the reality, Frazer says, "is that a conservation plan that serves to protect a species is also a conservation plan that provides for the reconciliation of the species's conservation needs and economic development needs. It's almost never a 'this or that.' It's finding a path forward for both objectives to be obtained." This was evident earlier this year when FWS granted a proposed wind turbine project a preapproved license to "take" a critically endangered California condor in case the operation of the site accidentally harms or kills one of the birds.
The ESA may require people or businesses to modify their behaviors in areas where threatened species live, but that "doesn't mean that the wheels are going to come off of that economic engine," Frazer says. "We have almost 1,500 species listed in this country and we have a very healthy economy. We have a growing population with the highest standard of living in the world. That's often lost. Instead, we hear about the potential for a species to shut down oil and gas development in that particular area."
Myth # 4: Conservation groups and biologists just want money from the federal government
Several lawmakers in recent years have introduced bills that would make it illegal for environmental groups to receive "economic gain" from filing lawsuits under the ESA, an attack on citizen involvement because some environmental groups have received court costs from the FWS following lawsuits. These lawmakers and other activist groups characterize ESA lawsuits as something making lawyers and conservation groups rich.
Research shows this to be false. A 2009 study by the State Bar of Texas, cited last year by Statesman.com, found that the average nonprofit lawyer earned an annual salary of $83,000. That's about half what corporate attorneys made that year.
Meanwhile, other critics accuse biologists of purposely skewing or falsifying endangered species data so they can keep their cushy jobs. According to the job site Indeed.com, the average per annum salary for a wildlife biologist is just $53,000—15 percent below the national average. The ESA is hardly the path to riches. (The act also has a strong peer-review process, which helps to keep the science accurate.)
Myth # 5: It's an international plot
Here's one from the fringe. The Internet is full of conspiracy sites about something called Agenda 21, which, according to these sites, uses the ESA and other environmental laws to destroy property rights and will result in people being rounded up and forced into "sustainable" cities. According to one well-distributed video, "The ESA is an excuse for the federal government to control water, destroy farms, inhibit economic growth and create circumstances ripe for fraud. The ESA is a tool used by globalists to control Americans through Agenda 21, which is the action plan to implement sustainable development."
In reality, of course, the ESA does no such thing. Agenda 21 was a nonbinding, completely voluntary action plan published by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development 20 years ago. It promoted sustainable development, but that's about it. This hasn't stopped Tea Party activists and affiliated politicians from opposing it, though. Last year the Republican Party even came out formally against Agenda 21, calling it "erosive to American sovereignty." While all this fear fosters, most of the U.N. Web pages about Agenda 21 are actually out of date and full of broken links or no longer exist at all. As Mother Jones wrote last year, Agenda 21's "impact on the world has been just about as negligible as you might imagine."
There are plenty of other myths about the ESA, ranging from what it protects (or doesn't) to who benefits from it to what's going to happen to your antique polar bear rug. Although the ESA is not a perfect law and its execution is occasionally flawed, the truth is that it works and it still has a lot of work left to do.
(Author's note: This article expands on some elements from my article "The Endangered Species Act at 40: Forty Things Journalists Should Know," which appeared in the summer 2013 issue of SEJournal, the magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists.)
Photo: Bald eagle by Ellie Attebery via Flickr
Previously in Extinction Countdown: