The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been a useful tool in protecting against species loss, however, there are improvements that could be made to deliver more effective and useful results. The ESA has already delivered many benefits to the world and those benefits outweigh the costs. However, saving species from extinction is like managing solid waste, the most effective methods are best enacted upstream not at the end of the process.
In 1973, the ESA was passed with only four members of the House and no Senators voting against it (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 294). The ESA is touted as one of the most powerful natural resources laws in the nation and helped shift concepts away from anthropocentric ideas of the environment to more biocentric views where all species have an intrinsic right to exist and thrive (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 295). While estimated costs to the economy as a whole have huge ranges, direct costs to administer this program were around $1.7 billion in 2012, which is only $5.40 per person (Platt 2013). Life in the universe is rare, so the preservation of species and biodiversity provides incalculable value. For this reason alone, the costs of the ESA are negligible in comparison to the infinite importance of thriving life. As of 2018, 85 species had been delisted like the bald eagle, grizzly bear, and gray whales with only 11 being from delisted due to extinctions (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 313). It is also estimated that the ESA prevented 2,227 species from going extinct by the habitat protection and other safeties it offers (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 313). Species preservation can help by maintaining genetic value for things like drugs, increasing biodiversity that leads to ecosystem services, and other indirect benefits that can be estimated in the trillions of dollars (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 296).
While the benefits do outweigh the costs, there are some improvements that could be made to lead to more effective results. The fact that the ESA only provides protection to species once they are in danger of extinction misses most of the opportunities to implement effective changes, like habitat loss, early on (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 294). The ESA also does not provide landowners any compensation mechanisms if their land becomes undevelopable, so it forces the burden on landowners to protect a species for the public good (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 309). To compensate landowners, it may be better for the public to purchase the habitat required to protect a species from extinction since the genetic, ecosystem, and aesthetic value are public benefits (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 310). The ESA’s focus on single species instead of biodiversity in a more comprehensive view also limits the protection and solutions available (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 313). Improving the ESA by focusing on habitat loss and species protection at early stages of risk, biodiversity and ecosystem protection, and program funding and compensation could help improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the ESA. Overall, life is rare and precious, so efforts to save endangered species should continue to be strengthened even if the costs of doing so are high.
Author: Logan Callen
Platt, John R. 2013. “How Much Did the U.S. Spend on the Endangered Species Act in 2012?” Scientific American. November 1. Accessed July 27, 2022. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/how-much-did-the-us-spend-on-the-endangered-species-act-in-2012/.
Salzman, James, and Barton H. Jr. Thompson. 2019. Environmental Law and Policy. 5th ed. St. Paul, MN: Foundation Press.