A recent tweak to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is sparking considerable backlash from environmentalists, with prominent groups accusing the Obama administration of weakening the landmark legislation.

The controversy centers on a decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to frontload the application process for listing of a species. Citizens looking to bring attention to multiple species in danger of extinction are now limited to just one species per ESA application. In addition, they must now fill out more paperwork, detailing the full geographical range of the species 30 days before submitting a petition.

A few factors appear to be at work in this regulatory decision. The federal government is dealing with an enormous backlog of applications; submissions typically go through a decadal process of review before action is taken. In addition, scientists in the regulatory space want to be sure that applications have merit and that overzealous citizens who aren’t feasibly able to gauge a species’ population health aren’t clogging the system. Canada’s version of the ESA relies on a national panel of scientists to judge which species need federal protection, and some policy experts have urged the United States to follow its northern neighbor’s lead.

But such efforts appear to be misguided. According to a 2012 study published in Science, citizen-identified endangered species faced higher threat levels than those flagged by the FWS. While scientists may better grasp what constitutes an unhealthy population level, citizens are closer to the action. Farmers and ranchers who have regular interactions with multiple species are less likely to miss subtle trends than scientists clustered in more urban areas.

Attempts to make our species protection program less citizen-centric stem from a sense that federal protection efforts aren’t living up to their promise. As environmental historian Peter Alagona explains in his tome “After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California,” the ESA has been a mixed bag. While Alagona believes the act has prevented many species from going extinct, he gives the legislation poor marks when it comes to population recoveries. Furthermore, the largest successes in anti-extinction efforts have come from “simple fixes,” like banning DDT and preventing the mass-hunting of alligators.

A lack of flexibility in approach is also leading to problems; bureaucrats rarely stray from a “step-wise process that’s deliberate” and eschew partnerships with private landowners.

The problem lies, then, not in the species-detection process, but in the subsequent conservation effort. Applying the brunt of federal power to species protection comes with unintended consequences. As Adler and others have documented, landowners who spot an endangered species on their land will often kill the animal rather than alert the authorities. Federal and state protection agencies are allowed to impose restrictions on land inhabited by these organisms, which can result in diminished property values. It’s unknown how widespread this practice is, but studies demonstrate a widespread phenomenon.

Addressing these issues requires a complete rethinking of the current federal process. The FWS, for example, could restrict conservation plans to public lands with endangered species. On private lands, the agency should restrict itself to verifying the “endangered” status of species listed in petitions. If the species in question is found to be in danger of extinction, landowners can be offered incentives to provide a conservation easement plan. A payment system could eliminate the current “shoot and shut up” strategy pursued by landowners, and encourage different approaches to conservation to blossom.

Moreover, the federal land conservation tax deduction can be beefed up, or converted into a cash transfer program to facilitate greater private efforts. While direct payments aren’t perfect, they can pave the way for a flexible conservation regime that utilizes local knowledge and positive incentives.

Photo by Sergey Uryadnikov

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