The Endangered Species Act: Thirty years of Endangering People and Animals is Enough

March 21, 2005

By Peyton Knight

Animals and humans have suffered the menace of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for three long decades. During this span, over 1,300 species have been listed as threatened or endangered under the Act’s guidelines. According the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ESA is responsible for recovering a mere ten of them.

That amounts to a pitiful recovery rate of less than one percent. When you take into account credible studies that show these ten recoveries had little or nothing to do with the ESA, the “success” rate plummets to zero.

Saving zero of over 1,300 species is hard work and sacrifice under the Endangered Species Act. After all, you don’t achieve a zero percent success rate without breaking a few eggs. When the Northern Spotted Owl was listed under the ESA in 1990, tens of thousands of Americans in the Pacific Northwest lost their jobs and their livelihoods. Billions of dollars were sapped from the regional economy. Private property was taken from landowners. Such is the toil and hardship associated with saving an owl that, as it turns out, isn’t endangered and never needed saving.

Crucial military preparation and training operations have fallen victim to the ESA’s relentless pursuit of imperfection. The Pentagon regards Camp Pendleton in Southern California as one of the best places to train U.S. marines due to its unique terrain and coastline. In fact, Camp Pendleton is the only amphibious training base on the West Coast. Alas, it is also home to the California gnatcatcher, the San Diego fairy shrimp, the tidewater goby, and more than a dozen other species listed as “endangered” or “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. As such, our men and women in uniform must tread lightly, or not at all, in certain areas that used to be their training ground—lest they find themselves subject to penalties and fines.

Dodging bullets may prove easier than avoiding fairy shrimp “vernal pools,” or “puddles of water” to the layman. An inadequately trained military is a small price to pay when you’ve got a zero-for-1,300 streak on the line. Even during a time of war.

The Endangered Species Act does not discriminate. Just ask the family and friends of the four firefighters who were killed in 2001. Federal bureaucrats fiddled while the inferno around them burned. These four heroes were fighting the infamous Thirty Mile Fire in Washington’s Okanogan National Forest when the blaze bore down on them and encroached on their emergency fire shelters. Their only salvation was the nearby Chewuch River, which could supply water to helicopters for a flame-dousing airdrop. Oh, if it were only that easy.

According to the Endangered Species Act, the Chewuch was home to a several endangered fish and, therefore, ladling water from the river might, could, possibly imperil a few of the little buggers. While paper pushers back East fretted over how to satisfy the ESA’s requirements, these four brave men and women were snuffed out by the deadly fire. The good news is there are plenty of humans to go around. Fish, on the other hand, well, they’re abundant too. But who are we to question the supremacy of the Endangered Species Act?

Congressman Richard Pombo (R-CA) has stated: “It is no secret the ESA has been used by extremists to restrict, seize, and devalue private property rights, as well as halt important government projects. In fact, this is what most ‘green’ obstructionist groups relish most about the Act.”

Whatever intentions were behind the ESA when it was conceived in 1973 are of little consequence. Intended results mean nothing when compared to actual results. The ESA exists solely as a land-use and power tool, whereby radical environmentalists and their allies in government can take property and force their whims on the public. As Rep. Pombo points out, “The ESA has become the preeminent law of the land; in its implementation, it takes precedent over all else.”

Included in that “all else” is common sense. The Endangered Species Act punishes property owners for fostering an environment that is suitable for species habitation. You read that right. The ESA is so backwards that it creates a perverse incentive for landowners to actually rid their property of species and habitat for fear of government confiscation of their land or property rights.

The incentives are wrong here,” notes biologist and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Regional Director Sam Hamilton. “If a rare metal is on my property the value of my land goes up. But if a rare bird is on my property the value of my property goes down.”

Stolen property, lost jobs, shattered livelihoods, broken dreams, billions of dollars, and lost lives. This is a pretty steep price for a law that has failed to save species. Can’t America do better? Isn’t it time to repeal the Endangered Species Act and start over?

Peyton Knight is executive director of the American Policy Center. The Center, a grassroots activist think tank, maintains an Internet site at

Tom DeWeese
[email protected]

Tom DeWeese is President of the American Policy Center and National Grassroots Coordinator for CFACT (Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow) working to help local activists organize into Freedom Pods ( He is also the author of three books, including Now Tell Me I Was Wrong, ERASE, and Sustainable: the WAR on Free Enterprise, Private Property, and Individuals.