The Endangered Species Act, enacted by Congress in 1973, was intended to protect species believed to be on the brink of extinction. When the law was first passed, there were 109 species listed for protection. Today, there are nearly 1,600 domestic species on the list, with 125 species considered as “candidates” for listing. Less than two percent of all listed species have been removed from ESA protection since 1973, and many of those are due to extinction or “data error.” Yet the last time the ESA was significantly updated by Congress was 1988. While the ESA has fallen behind, however, America has seen a boom in conservation awareness and effective voluntary programs and practices at the state and local level.
Challenges to Ag
While the ESA has had devastating impacts on many segments of our society, its impacts fall more unfairly on farmers and ranchers. One reason for this is that farmers and ranchers own most of the land where plant and animal species are found. The land is open, unpaved and relatively undeveloped, so that it provides actual or potential habitat for listed plants and animals. Often farm or ranch practices enhance habitat, thereby attracting endangered or threatened species to their property.
Unlike other industries, farm and ranch land is the principal asset used in their business. ESA restrictions are especially harsh for farmers and ranchers because this prevents them from making productive use of their primary business asset. Also unlike other industries, farm and ranch families also live on the land that they work. Restrictions imposed by endangered species concerns also adversely impact farm and ranch quality of life.
The ESA is one of the most far-reaching environmental statutes ever passed. It has been interpreted to put the interests of species above those of people, and through its prohibitions against “taking” of species, it can restrict a wide range of human activity in areas where species exist or may possibly exist. Furthermore, it allows private special interest groups to sue anyone who they allege to be in violation of the Act. Currently, sue-and-settle tactics employed by radical environmental groups have required the government to make listing decisions on hundreds of new species. These plaintiffs have been rewarded for their efforts by taxpayer funded reimbursements for their legal bills.
We believe that farmers and ranchers will respond to incentives to protect species and habitat on their privately owned lands. Instead of being forced to feed and shelter listed species on their own, farmers and ranchers should receive technical and financial help to accomplish this.
Today, Americans have a growing understanding of and appreciation for species’ conservation. There are countless examples of effective voluntary conservation programs and practices that are being implemented at the state and local level. However, the scope and reach of the ESA is far more expansive today than ever before. The act must be modernized to protect endangered species without burdening the American people or imposing on private property rights.
Endangered and threatened species protection can be more effectively achieved by providing incentives to private landowners and public land users rather than by imposing land use restrictions and penalties.
The ESA should not be reauthorized in its current form. The current federal ESA must be amended and updated to accommodate the needs of both endangered and threatened species and humans with complete respect for private property rights within the framework of the United States Constitution. Human need for food, fiber, shelter and energy shall have priority over the protection of endangered and threatened species.