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Endangered Species

Since everyone loves Fafblog, and no one agrees with me about the Endangered Species Act, everyone will want to read Fafblog mocking my post on the ESA and explaining to me my gross ignorance of the wonders of biodiversity and the fact that we're all part of a vast interrelated Gaia. On the other side, here's some writing from a little while back on the subject by Tyler Cowen and Lynne Kiesling.

July 9, 2004 | Permalink


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» Rational Environmentalism from BergerBlog
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Matt, to my mind the question is whether species are being created in anything like an equal proportion to the death of old species.

Specices have always died off, but that was always accompanied by the addition of new species. Outside of genetic engineering, I would argue that it is not happening. Given that, I am worried about the range of creatures in this world (for our sake as much as for theirs).

Given that, to me, the endangered species act makes sense.

Posted by: pfc | Jul 9, 2004 10:41:26 AM

"In summary, any reform of the Endangered Species Act should have as its goal making endangered species the friend, not the enemy, of landowners. This can be largely accomplished by ending the Fish and Wildlife Service's power to control land without compensation."

I think I have mentioned before that my quasi/weak/libertarianism is based on a reading of the "takings clause". Not that I think landowners should be allowed to shoot that bald eagle, but I don't understand why they shouldn't be compensated under the Constitution.

I agree that "private" environmentalism should be looked at very seriously; but I fear there will be "orphan" species, as there are "orphan" drugs.

And I don't trust, for example, Floridians to understand that their long term interests lie in protecting the Everglades (water, water, everywhere but not a drop to drink) when faced with a short term profit in development.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 9, 2004 10:46:24 AM

Juan Non-Volokh is full of it.

These libertarian know-nothings love to point out a law that is fighting an uphill battle and then suddenly blaming said law for causing the problem in the first place.

What Juan Non-Volokh doesn't tell you is that many states now cloak their data on endangered species so that developers and/or landowners don't go out and hunt osprey or somesuch.

What Juan Non-Volokh doesn't tell you is that getting on the endangered species list is often precisely why a species gets saved. For instance, the BALD FUCKING EAGLE, our national bird.

What Juan Non-Volokh doesn't tell you is that the ESA is a critical point of leverage with state highway agencies, which pretty much set the agenda as far as habitat destruction goes. On the flip side, they enable state game commissions and conservation agencies to muster the political will to conserve tracts of land that would otherwise be ruined.

Perhaps the libertarian whackos have some better idea like paying landowners via vouchers or something, or utilizing Coase's theorem in some novel way, but I doubt it.

I could go on, but this is so idiotic that it's making my head hurt.

Posted by: praktike | Jul 9, 2004 10:48:39 AM

Uh bob, why is that bald eagle (a flying bird) the property of the landowner?

Posted by: uh bob? | Jul 9, 2004 10:51:47 AM

You know you're on the wrong side of the fence when Fafblog calls you out. Just be glad the Medium Lobster didn't take a shot.

Posted by: Kriston | Jul 9, 2004 10:58:54 AM

The bald eagle was put on the list, and now is less endangered, therefore the ESA saved the bald eagle? Mr. Post Hoc, allow me to introduce you to Mr. Propter Hoc. I'm not going to say it didn't help, but FWS's species profile seems to suggest that the main cause of decline in BE numbers was DDT, and the banning of DDT the primary cause of a rebound.

Posted by: Julian Sanchez | Jul 9, 2004 11:02:39 AM

"Uh bob, why is that bald eagle (a flying bird) the property of the landowner?"

Why is the rabbit or the elm the property of the owner? What does ownership mean if you can't drain your swamp, yet get no compensation?

I don't necessarily have answers. I do, on the other hand, have a half-dozen huge trees that are about to get brutally slashed by the electric company because they are too close to their power lines. Now I suppose those limbs are on their property, but the choice of paying to run the lines underground never seem to come up for my vote.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 9, 2004 11:09:39 AM

"Uh bob, why is that bald eagle (a flying bird) the property of the landowner?"

I didn't fairly address the question, which would be better answered by lawyers or historians, but my strong presumption is that right to hunt transient wild game is presumed to the owner of their immediate location.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 9, 2004 11:15:44 AM

Mr. Sanchez-the loss of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker was quite simply preventable idiocy.
There was no ESA when the last were exterminated in the 1940s.
If a small remnant population was discovered in Louisiana swamps today (I believe!) how should we proceed?

Posted by: martin | Jul 9, 2004 11:19:53 AM

Followed the two links --

So a bunch of people who have doubts about environmentalism per se as well as about government programs and regulations as such, also doubt that government regulations really successfully protect the environment.

Wow, that's a surprise! So when government programs try to do something that's not worth doing, they're ineffective! Whereas, if private property were given a free hand, everything would be much better, if we could remember at this point whether we ever thought protecting endangered species was a good thing or not in the first place.

Anyway, the lesson is that the market will be able to do whatever it is that we're trying to do once we figure that out.

Matt's frank hatred for nature is actually much preferable. When freemarketers and libertarians start getting cagy and strategic they can be pretty ridiculous.

Posted by: Zizka | Jul 9, 2004 11:30:05 AM

Political maps are full of lines. But nature has no lines; all things are a-flowing. That's why you aren't allowed to do whatever you want, even on your own land, because the effects of your actions can't be confined within the boundaries of your property.

Posted by: son volt | Jul 9, 2004 11:36:37 AM

bob: This is really painful for me to say, but I disagree with your assessment of property rights in wild animals. When a wild animal enters a person's property, the owner of the land does not acquire ownership in the animal unless he makes a visible effort to capture it (like by building a fence around it). I feel really dirty taking a relatively anti-property rights position against a liberal, but I honestly disagree. Your original post just said that owner should have a right to shoot bald eagles that enter his property or be compensated. That's more defensible, but it's still probably not a severe enough restriction to qualify as a regulatory taking.

BTW, I at least agree with Matt's assessment of the ESA. All of Matt's critics seem to be arguing simply that biodiversity has some value to humans. That may be true, but that doesn't mean that it's worth incurring substantial costs hoping to save a single species. There should at least be some kind of individualized cost/benefit analysis. I would need to see some evidence that the extinction of a particular species will have substantial consequences before I would support protective regulation. I kept my mouth shut in the earlier threads because I was afraid my endorsement would do more harm than good, and I didn't have anything particularly interesting to add.

Posted by: Xavier | Jul 9, 2004 11:37:26 AM

"unless he makes a visible effort to capture it (like by building a fence around it"

Or shooting it. Got to be somebody who actually knows the law. Duck hunting has to work this way. I can shoot the duck on my land, if it flies next door, I may no longer shoot it on my neighbor's land.

Common and English law has to exist in depth on the subject. Did all wild game belong to the crown, rights of harvest allocated by the king? This would maybe be a source or justification of "seasons".

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 9, 2004 11:47:28 AM

It seems to me that when a species reaches a point that it is placed on the list, it has become so few in number that its complete disappearance would have little or no impact on the environment; or at least less impact than its reduction to the number that gets it put on the list had.

That is, it seems that the harm done to the environment when a species goes from a population of 1,000,000 to 3,000 is much larger than when it goes from 3,000 to 0. By the time the second step has rolled around, the ecosystem has adjusted.

Posted by: Ugh | Jul 9, 2004 12:13:03 PM

Okay, different regulatory approaches are fine. I'm all in favor of the most effective, lowest-cost approach, and I think mainstream Democrats are also mostly in favor of primarily market-based environmental regulation (primarily, but not exclusively: there are some places for uniform standards, like mercury). Of course, some craaaaaazy leftist Democrats like Zizka don't agree, and think uniform standards are a fine approach to regulating the environment.

But "improving regulation" isn't the same as "gutting regulation."

The current balance seems to be between Democrats, who are primarily in favor of market-oriented regulation, and conservatives who don't see any need for regulating the environment at all.

Here's a quote that I kinda like: "It used to be that the big problem in formulating a sensible environmental policy came from the left--from people who insisted that since pollution is evil, it is immoral to put a price on it. These days, however, the main problem comes from the right--from conservatives who, unlike most economists, really do think that the free market is always right--to such an extent that they refuse to believe even the most overwhelming scientific evidence if it seems to suggest a justification for government action."

Clinton and Babbitt were never eco-Gaian ideologues.

I actually think that the emphasis on endangered species IS a bit overblown. Endangered species are not very much of an ecosystem, pretty much by definition. Reducing the population of some rare bird from 50 to 0 may not be good, but it won't have nearly as bad an environmental impact the population of starfish from 100 million to 1 million, even though the starfish are endangered neither before nor after the population reduction. Of course, keystone species are usually noticed retrospectively.

Simply put, I think that we should not expect market-oriented environmental reform from the Bush administration for the same reason we should never have expected good classical-conservative small government, a successful invasion/reconstruction of Iraq, a good energy policy (even good in the context of supply-side, fossil-fuel oriented stuff), or... well... anything from the Bush administration. They talk about improving regulation by making it more efficient and market oriented (a fine goal, like bringing democracy to Iraq), then they make an utter mess of it.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Jul 9, 2004 12:23:54 PM

This quote from Fafblog really is pretty funny, no matter where you come down in this debate: "Like everyone else I walk around in a self-contained hermetically-sealed suit of cyborg armor drawing as its power source an infinite source of energy, and am therefore unaffected by what happens to the outside world."

Posted by: trewq | Jul 9, 2004 12:36:46 PM

There's an astounding amount of misunderstanding in these posts, never mind in Matt's original half-baked attempt at a perspective.

I suspect we can all agree that the ESA has been badly enforced by the government. We can probably also agree that it hasn't been universally successful at protecting individual species (possibly, who knows, due to the lack of enforcement by the government - but I'm just going out on a limb there). What seems to be missing in most of these comments is the fact that the ESA has been *enormously* successful as a tool for protecting habitat - not simply for one charismatic (or uncharismatic) species, but for entire ecosystems at a time.

Most ESA success stories are tales of ordinary citizens taking legal action to force the government to comply with its own law, with the result being large-scale habitat protection. Since we don't have any reasonable habitat-protection laws in this country, I'll take the ESA any day of the week.

Posted by: patrick | Jul 9, 2004 12:47:13 PM

What patrick said.

As for Senor Sanchez, lemme splain.

Perhaps the bald eagle was not the best example I could have given. DDT was the most important, but surely not the only factor in the recovery of the bald eagle. Lead poisoning was another. But I do find it interesting that it's also these reason types that are so excited to start using DDT again ...

In any event, the good folks at Reason would be harded pressed to argue that the Cumberland Sandwort will be saved by the ban on DDT ...

Posted by: praktike | Jul 9, 2004 12:57:41 PM

You know, Matt, political naivete is from time to time acceptable. Willful political naivete is, however, just plain stupid.

When you have to start looking to Tyler Cowen for defenses of your position, you've lost it.

Posted by: Kenneth G. Cavness | Jul 9, 2004 12:59:17 PM

What about an Endangered Genus Act? we could let certain species go extinct as long as other members of its genus were left for genetic diversity purposes.

Posted by: creepy mf-er | Jul 9, 2004 1:06:40 PM

"By the time the second step has rolled around, the ecosystem has adjusted."
Ugh. I'm not an ecologist, but I think at the very *least* you have to take into account the rate of decline. If there were 1,000,000 of species X 30 years ago and only 3000 exist today, that statement might well be nonsense.
And to simply state "the ecosystem has adjusted" is not enough. What is the nature of this adjustment? Certainly ecosystems adjust, but this may be reflected in additional extinctions, pest explosions, and any number of unexpected changes. Think of cities. According to a recent NY Times article, NYC (and environs) contains about 300 cobblers (given the nature of the survey, probably an undercount, but whatever). Let's imagine that cobblers went extinct. I'm pretty sure NYC would survive, but even such an insignificant loss would have a ripple effect, and you would have to know a great deal about the business to predict what it might be: any specialized fields supplying cobblers might be hard-hit; while others will benefit . . . After all, economics is just a small subfield of ecology. . .

The (U.S.) East has definitely adjusted a great deal over just the last two centuries - massive deforestation, reforestation, extinction of a major bird species, local extinctions of all large predators, coyotes spreading east, functional extinction of a extremely important tree (chestnut), fire suppression, warming - all sorts of shifts going on. Boggles the mind.

Ecosystem 'adjustment' is a major issue in terms of endangered species, especially when it is not clear that a species' habitat might not be 'adjusted' out of existence, forcing it to become a zoo refugee for however long humans can keep it going. But there is at least a possibility that a endangered species down to 3000 could increase in numbers (as many have) and shift the ecosystem, if not back, then in a different direction.

Additionally, once species X goes from 3000 to 0, it's gone. Bye-bye. Extinction is forever. Even if you can clone new ones at some later date - well, is that even worth arguing?

Matt - the reason everyone jumped on you is that you did the equivalent of: "Philosophy? Who needs that bullcrap? Burn it all, I say!"
Numerous commenters: Not that I know what I am talking about either, but really, there is a wealth of information out there, much of it fascinating. Avail yourself.

Posted by: Dan S. | Jul 9, 2004 1:12:18 PM

One thing worth noting is that from a biodiversity standpoint, indicator species are far more important than the fancy camera ready pandas or manatees. Once you start to see the big guys disappear, you've already missed something happening somewhere down the food chain.

Posted by: praktike | Jul 9, 2004 1:20:03 PM

If it's a protected species, even if it flies on your land it's not your property. Likewise for game species out of seasons. I don't know whether Libertarians (except for Claude Dallas) oppose game laws, but the laws do have a long traditions.

The Endangered Species Act is flawed, but no better act will be passed. Its critics don't want a better act, they want less environmental protection because they don't like government regulation and don't think environmental protection is very important.

I don't understand the enthusiasm for "market-based" environmental protection either. Government interference in the market is government interference in the market, regardless of the form it takes. Taxes and credits are interference just as much as fines and prohibitions are. Presumably "market-based" environmental protection is easier to game, and allows the regulated to take over the agency more easily. And then there are windfalls for some businesses, balancing the costs to other business (though only the latter will presumably be litigated.)

Posted by: Zizka | Jul 9, 2004 1:21:06 PM

Dan S. -

Good points all around, I kind of threw that last line in there.

Posted by: Ugh | Jul 9, 2004 1:25:24 PM

""market-based" environmental protection either. Government interference..." zizka

I presume this was talking about the movement, for instance, to privately buy up habitat rather than relying on public protection. Ted Turner, IIRC, is the largest private landowner in the country with just this in mind.

Other people are working on acceptable "mixed-use" compromises, showing businesses alternative ways to profit by preservation. I was thinking recently of what would actually happen if we put Yosemite Falls area up for sale. 5 private homes with a view? One expensive hotel with a view? 50 trailer parks? Where would be the best long-term profit? An environmental movement that could convince developers toward maximal preservation of habitat might be more actually productive than saving a spotted owl.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 9, 2004 1:39:46 PM

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