Taxpayer's Double Burden, a 1993 report by the Wilderness Society and the Environmental Defense Fund, describes subsidies that promote habitat conversion or degradation as a "double burden" because taxpayers must pay to subsidize a particular industry or activity, and then pay again to recover species and protect them from subsidized activities.
That report was based on a database for all listed species that was developed by staff of the Wilderness Society and the Environmental Defense Fund. Most of its information was derived from the listing packages that Fish & Wildlife Service provides when a species is officially listed. Information that could not be acquired from this source was obtained from the World Wildlife Fund's Guide to Endangered Species.
Taxpayer's Double Burden showed that a majority of listed species on federal lands are threatened by subsidized activities. However, that report considered only species occuring on federal land and those threatened by federal water projects.
This article updates Taxpayer's Double Burden to include species listed since 1993 as well as threats from federally subsidized activities that take place on non-federal land. Environmental Defense Fund ecologist David Wilcove has kept the database up to date as new species were listed, and generously provided the database to the Thoreau Institute for the preparation of this article.
This article assesses, on a broad scale, how many and which species are affected by activities that are subsidized. The article will focus on ten economic activities that are subsidized and contribute to the loss of endangered species and their habitat.
The word "subsidy" has been defined in many different ways and for different purposes. A Congressional study on the economics of federal subsidy programs defined the word fairly inclusively as "any one-way governmentally controlled income transfer to private sector decision making units that is designed to encourage or discourage particular private market behavior."
For the purposes of this article, a subsidy is defined as any government policy where income is directly or indirectly transferred from taxpayers in general to specific recipients, or where the beneficiaries of a specific policy do not pay full costs for a project, access to resources, or for a service. Programs that are largely or completely under government control, such as highway construction and defense, are also counted as "federal activities."
An example of a direct subsidy is the USDA's deficiency payment program--when the price of a crop does not meet a threshold level determined by the government, USDA pays farmers the difference between the fair market value and a predeterrnined price. The tariff and import quota for refined sugar is an example of an indirect transfer of income; sugarcane farmers do not receive direct payment from the government but they benefit from a greatly inflated price at the expense of sugar consumers.
1 is the only or most significant factor;
2 is one of two or more significant factors;
3 is a secondary factor;
4 is a potential factor; and
5 is a historical factor.
For the purposes of this paper, only magnitude 1 and 2 threats were considered. In the database, species may face from one to as many as ten magnitude 2 threats. Only about a quarter of the species are listed as facing a magnitude 1 threat, and by definition no species faces more than one such magnitude 1 threat.
The database included the following threats:
For the purposes of this article, "federal programs or subsidized activities" were defined to include all agriculture, defense, fire suppression, livestock grazing, highway construction, navigational maintenance, land conversion for agriculture, and water projects for irrigation, flood control, hydropower, and channelization. Also counted, but only for species at least partly found on federal land, were recreation, timber, fire, animal damage control, and mining (except oil & gas and geothermal) activities. In total, 40 percent of the threats to listed species were considered federal programs or federally subsidized.
In assessing the role of federal activities, species were classed in one of five different groups:
Primary Main Partial Not Unknown Total Amphibians 1 4 3 4 0 12 Birds 6 10 16 47 12 91 Crustaceans 1 6 4 7 0 18 Fish 24 14 53 16 1 108 Mussels & clams 11 8 37 1 0 57 Insects 1 4 8 16 1 30 Arachnids 0 0 0 3 0 3 Mammals 7 5 11 33 9 65 Plants 56 50 160 224 29 519 Reptiles 2 3 10 18 0 33 Snails 3 0 8 6 3 20 Total 112 104 310 375 55 956This table shows the numbers of species primarily, mainly, partly, or not threatened by federally subsidized activities; as well as the number for which threats are unknown.
The table also suggests that some classes of species are more threatened by subsidized activities than others. Mussels & clams, fishes, amphibians, and snails are the most impacted by federal activities. Of the mammals, birds, and reptiles, about 20 percent are primarily or mostly threatened by federal activities, while another 20 percent are partly threatened.
One reason for this disparity could be that the federal government is more highly motivated to protect charismatic species such as mammals and birds. The president's Northwest forest plan, which protected the spotted owl but neglected snails and clams, may be typical of the government's general response to endangered species.
Table two shows which programs tend to be the sources of the most threats. Agriculture is the leading problem, especially if grazing is included. Water projects are next.
Category Number of Species Agriculture1 322 Defense 34 Fire suppression 19 Grazing2 153 Highways & navigation 125 Mining (federal)3 57 Recreation (federal) 142 Timber (federal)4 80 Water5 271 Animal damage control 3
On the other hand, federal programs strongly influence some activities that weren't counted as "federal activities" for the purposes of this analysis. Many federal programs influence urban development, and urbanization threatens at least 300 different species. These were not counted in the analysis.
It may also be unrealistic to treat all magnitude 2 threats equally. The average species faces three such threats, and some face up to ten. Some of these threats must be more important than others, and synergistic relationships between threats are often not known. But for the purposes of this article it was not possible to weigh the threats in detail for all 956 species.
Even where federal subsidies clearly threaten a particular species, it is not certain that withdrawal of the subsidies will completely halt the threatening activities. Some below-cost federal timber sales would still be sold if subsidies were eliminated, as would many agricultural activities.
A final problem is that the database is limited by the information provided by the source documents, which mainly came from the Fish & Wildlife Service. For example, the database indicates that more than 100 species are threatened by timber, mining, and recreation without saying whether those species are found on federal land. Without that information, this paper did not count the threats as due to a federal activity.
The limits of the database can also be seen in the small numbers of species that it says are threatened by fire suppression or animal damage control. Animal damage control is not listed as a threat to the black-footed ferret; in fact, no threats are listed for the ferret. Although fire suppression has probably done far more to change forest ecosystems than any other human practice, it is listed as a threat to only one mammal, one bird, and one reptile.
Because of these limits, the database does not reveal with precision whether any single species is primarily threatened by federal subsidies or whether an elimination of subsidies will automatically lead a species to recover. But it does suggest the overall importance of subsidized activities compared with other threats to endangered species.
Such subsidies and programs should be carefully reevaluated each year for at least several reasons. Often the reasons for initiating subsidies no longer apply. Many agricultural subsidies were created to support family farms, yet the main beneficiaries today are large agribusinesses. Other programs are created with the expectation that they will be self funding, yet they turn out to require subsidies--which are often buried in agency budgets--in the long run.
Subsidies result in market distortions, inefficient allocations of resources, and serve as a transfer of wealth from taxpayers in general to certain favored groups or industries. Subsidies also often have serious unintended consequences, among which are their environmental effects. This analysis indicates that one major consequence is a negative effect on biodiversity.
It is clear that the Fish & Wildlife Service will most likely never have the numbers of personnel or level of resources necessary to evaluate, list, draft recovery plans, and implement the plans for this vast number of species. Recent initiatives from within the agency have encouraged the drafting of multiple species recovery plans. Many scientists support this and believe that focusing on a broad, ecosystem level is a more cost-effective approach to conserving species.
The following benefits have been offered in favor of the ecosystem approach:
This article was organized using a single species approach--sets of individual species were derived that were affected by a particular subsidy. A complementary analysis could examine the impact of subsidies on the level of ecosystems, with each ecosystem containing its complement of listed and candidate species.
For example, the longleaf pine forests of the Southeast contain 27 listed and 99 candidate species. A recovery plan for this ecosystem could potentially provide for the protection of the majority of these 126 species (as well as others that may be declining, and myriad additional species). An analysis of which subsidized activities are contributing to the loss of longleaf pine forests would be an important part of drafting this ecosystem recovery plan. Other ecosystems that contain significant numbers of listed and candidate species include the Everglades, rivers and streams of the Southeast, and Southwestern riparian forests, to name just a few.
By identifying and addressing these large scale trends conservation efforts may be able to accomplish a great deal that would have otherwise been difficult with a species-by-species, or even an ecosystem, approach. This article identifies large scale trends of threats to listed species that have a subsidized component. The reevaluation, modification and/or elimination of these subsidies will be useful to a broad-pattern approach to conserving endangered species.
Subsidies often serve as perverse incentives that encourage habitat conversion and degradation. To address species conservation on a large scale, we must eliminate the existing misincentives and create positive incentives to conserve habitat.
Congress can focus on economic incentives while creating a broad structure that gives biologists flexibility to use the best tools for any particular situation. The objectives of this approach would include:
Jeff Opperman (Oppermanjj@aol.com) is a biologist who recently spent two years working for the Smithsonian Institution in Bolivia. He is now working for Conservation International.