Dangerous Species Warnings

For most species, officially declaring them "endangered" makes them worse off:

Ferraro, McIntosh, and Ospina (2007) find that … for a large majority of the species studied, listing under the [U.S. Endangered Species Act] has actually harmed the species’ chances of recovery.

Ferraro et al examine two different elements of the ESA’s operation: the impact of listing a species as being endangered, and the effects of species-specific government recovery expenditures. … For the 25 percent of the listed species that garner about 95 percent of all government recovery funding, the ESA seems to have produced improvements in the chances of recovery. But for the other 75 percent of species, those that are largely ignored by the funding process, the ESA has sharply reduced species’ viability, compared to unlisted species that are otherwise similar except for listing status. …

Ferraro et al … [matched] each listed species with one or more unlisted species that are substantially identical to the listed one, … then compare the performance of the listed species with the performance of their matched but unlisted “twins.” Ferraro et al are limited by the available data for the study of native terrestrial and freshwater vertebrates that have full species status; even so, they are able to closely track over time the performance of 135 listed species and 295 unlisted but matching species.

The results are striking: For the overwhelming majority of listed species—those that receive little funding for recovery—listing under the ESA markedly reduces the species’ chances of recovery, compared to their unlisted twins. For the 35 or so well-funded species, recovery chances have been enhanced, but it is recovery expenditures, not listing per se, that is doing the work. …

There are at least two mechanisms through which this may occur. First, there is the well-known “shoot, shovel, and shut up” response to the ESA: When species on private land are listed, property owners may attempt to rid themselves of the species to avoid government restrictions on the use of their land. … [Second,] “maintenance-dependent” species … may disappear precisely because of landowner inaction—inaction the owner may find attractive if a private recovery program undertaken by the owner would invite intrusion by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Added:  It seems there is no point in listing a species as endangered unless we are willing to spend lots more than we usually do on that species.  So why do we list but then not spend?  Is green not about nature? 

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  • Anecdotally I’ll note that my biology teacher pounded this fact into us students my freshman year of college. His reasoning was a twist on the “shoot, shovel, and shut up” approach. When landowners (mainly companies that own the land) worry that a species might soon be on the endangered species list, they are more likely undertake action against that species before it gets on the list, at which point it will become a crime. But yes, counter-intuitive, and yes some environmental groups do more harm than good without knowing it.

  • Another argument for bio-diversity markets.

  • I would like to see further information here. For example, other than some key people suspecting that achieving endangered status leads to depopulation, from the data presented we might also reason that the funds have a strongly skewed distribution towards those endangered species that are considered to have the best chance for recovery. All else being equal, it makes more sense to pour money into recovering a species with an 80% chance of recovery versus a species with a 10% chance of recovery.

  • @Gordon

    “the funds have a strongly skewed distribution towards those endangered species that are considered to have the best chance for recovery”

    It may be more the human bias towards what’s cuddly and cute – the so-called Bambi Effect.

    Environmental groups, while well-meaning, are political critters that need to raise money. Hard to raise money with a picture of a banded kingsnake, say, as opposed to a violet hummingbird, even tho’ the kingsnake may be more important to the environment overall. Who wants to give money for an evil-looking reptile as opposed to the beautiful hummingbird? These groups then go forward with this money and lobby for agency action on X or Y species, ignoring the others.

    Also there’s the issue of how enforcement has been carried out in the past. Instead of offering incentives – for example, grants towards preserving species with an eye towards fostering eco-tourism or exchanging prime habitat for the land rights elsewhere – the enforcement history has traditionally been strangely punitive. Altho’ this is now changing, history has caused landowners to be very reluctant to work with the government.

  • Mario

    Who could expect that punishing people who host endangered species would increase their numbers? Now if we were to pay property owners who’s land was the home of endangered species, we would have more information on their numbers and they would have a greatly increased chance for survival (as long as they remained on the list).

  • What does it mean that the control group of species is “substantially identical?” That they, too, face potential extinction.
    Could it simply be that the listing is a good prediction of future woes for the species?

  • Could it simply be that the listing is a good prediction of future woes for the species?

    With all of the political wrangling that surrounds it, a species needs to be on its last legs before it’s added to the list. It’s possible that being added to the list, regardless of any other effects, is an indicator that a species is likely to collapse within the next few generations.

  • Wouldn’t you be extremely surprised not to get this result?

    If species listed, and species not listed, had equal chances of recovery, it would mean that the people who choose when to list a species as endangered performed randomly – that they were just throwing darts at a dartboard to pick species.

    It seems much more likely than me that the people who spend their entire careers working in this field, and who consider each case in detail, have information available to them that the economists who wrote this meta-analysis did not consider!

  • Phil: Thought about that too. To the extent that “compared to unlisted species that are otherwise similar except for listing status” is actually correct, the objection is invalid.

    So the question becomes, to what extent is that bit is actually correct?

  • Julian Morrison

    I think you’re being a little naive, seeing a list created by a political process and wondering “why so much politics”. Everything the government does is political. Conservation is not the purpose, conservation is the product. The green lobby are the customers, and the coin is influence. Are the greens buying whales today? Tough luck for the snail darters.

    Scientists motivated by pure conservation might exert influence on the process, but their priorities are not its priorities.