The Endangered Species Act, the law that protects animals and plants at risk of extinction, has had some dramatic successes -- among them, saving the bald eagle, the gray whale, the peregrine falcon and the American alligator. But the law has also drawn complaints from landowners and energy interests that it unnecessarily harms economic development.
The debate over the decades-old law is resurfacing in Congress, with critics of the law citing a statistic that raises questions about the law’s effectiveness.
Specifically, a reader suggested we check a claim by U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., in a recent interview with Wyoming Public Radio.
In the interview, which aired Aug. 23, 2013, Lummis said, "Our goal is not to repeal the Endangered Species Act. Far from it. Our goal is to make the Endangered Species Act work. We have a law where only 1 percent of the species that have been listed have actually been delisted. To me, that indicates a law that is failing in its ultimate goal which is to list species, recover them, and then delist them."
Whether the act is "failing" is an opinion, and as we'll see, opinions differ on that point. We wanted to concentrate on whether Lummis is right that under the act, "only 1 percent of the species that have been listed have actually been delisted."
How does the act work?
The precursor to the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1966. The law was revised in 1969 and underwent a major rewrite in 1973.
A key element of the 1973 act is that it prohibits federal agencies from "authorizing, funding, or carrying out any action that would jeopardize a listed species or destroy or modify its ‘critical habitat.’ " While this doesn’t necessarily affect privately held land, many major development projects on private land may require one or more federal permits, so they can be delayed or otherwise affected by the law. In addition, states may have their own laws on endangered species.
So what does "listing" mean? The federal government can confer protection upon species after completing a lengthy regulatory process that includes public input. The factors that would qualify a species for the list, according to the 1973 act, include "the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; disease or predation; the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence."
The two key categories are "endangered" and "threatened." An endangered species is at more severe risk than a threatened species; a species can be either "uplisted" from threatened to endangered or "downlisted" from endangered to threatened, depending on the improvement of its prognosis in the wild.
Species can also be "delisted" entirely. That can be done if the threats to the species "have been eliminated or controlled, based on several factors including population sizes and trends and the stability of habitat quality and quantity."
How many species have been delisted?
All told, 56 species have been delisted. Because Lummis said she was talking about the ability of the law to "list species, recover them, and then delist them," we will use the 28 species that were delisted due to recovery as the focus of our calculation. We will exclude the 10 that were delisted because they became extinct, and an additional 18 that were delisted for a variety of other reasons, such as an error in the original listing.
Meanwhile, 2,105 species have been listed as either threatened or endangered. So, doing the math, 1.3 percent of listed species have ultimately been delisted..
In other words, numerically, Lummis is right -- slightly more than 1 percent of listed species have been taken off the list because they recovered.
Is this the only purpose of the act?
Experts say that while Lummis was right on the number, they add that the number tells only part of the story.
They argue that while delisting is great, it isn’t the primary goal of the law. At root, they say, the law is designed to prevent extinction -- and on that score, the law has been a success. Only one-half of 1 percent of species placed on the list have become extinct, which works out to a success rate of over 99 percent plus.
"By the time species are listed as threatened or endangered, their numbers are so low that preventing extinction is the major challenge, with recovery and delisting a remote consideration," said Wm. Robert Irvin, president and CEO of the advocacy group American Rivers. "The law acts as an emergency room. Recovery requires much longer treatment through actions under the full panoply of conservation laws and programs."
In addition, focusing on delisting ignores species that have seen improvements in viability, but not large enough to justify a delisting. This has been the case for a variety of species, from sea otters to black-footed ferrets.
J. Michael Scott, an emeritus professor in the fish and wildlife department of the University of Idaho, said studies suggest that more than half of the endangered and threatened populations are stable or improving, and that percentage increases with the length of time the species has been protected. Such statistics "suggest that the act is far more successful than the 1 percent figure suggests," he said.
Lummis said that under the Endangered Species Act, "only 1 percent of the species that have been listed have actually been delisted." She’s correct, though one could just as easily say that less than 1 percent of the species placed on the list have become extinct, and that many species have improved without being delisted. The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information, so we rate her statement Mostly True.