Issue Brief

Reshaping the Endangered Species Act: A Holistic Approach Needed?

Jun 2, 2010 | P. Lynn Scarlett

Efforts to prevent the extinction of imperiled plant and animal species were overwhelmingly approved by Congress in 1973. With the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), procedures were established to identify, list, and protect threatened wildlife and plants.

But since its enactment, the Act has been among the nation’s most controversial laws, generating legal challenges from state and local governments, conservationists, farmers and ranchers, and business owners. Through development of tools like Safe Harbor Agreements, which create regulatory assurances for landowners that protect at-risk species, many disincentives for private stewardship under the Act have been addressed. Other challenges, however, remain.

In Reshaping the Endangered Species Act: A Holistic Approach Needed? RFF Visiting Scholar Lynn Scarlett explores some of the modern challenges to the success of the ESA.

Scarlett finds that three key policy issues affect the success of the ESA:

  • How to coordinate stewardship actions of multiple land owners across different jurisdictions and property boundaries
  • How to resolve the tension between the species-by-species focus of the ESA and the realities of the natural world where species have interconnected relationships within ecosystems
  • Strengthening ways to incorporate both science and the practical experiences of resource managers into recovery planning and protection of threatened and endangered species

Collaborative programs from across the country provide insights into how to tackle the problems of coordination and the need to include both science and practical experience into recovery planning, according to Scarlett. She cites, for example, a program in the Upper Colorado River region that provides technical and financial incentives to private landowners for their contributions to ecosystem-wide management programs. Other examples of successful coordination abound and could be used as the building blocks for enhancing ESA implementation, she notes.  The recent  ESA listing of 48 species in Kauai in a single action by the Fish and Wildlife Service provides a first step to addressing the third challenge of how to create an ecosystem-based approach to listing and protecting species.