At most, the law can take credit for saving only two or three species, while it has witnessed the extinction of many more. Species such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons have recovered, not due to the ESA but to entirely separate actions, such as the Environmental Protection Agency's ban of DDT a year before the ESA was passed.
The prairie dog and black-footed ferret illustrate the failings of the ESA. The federal government declared war on prairie dogs, a minor nuisance to ranchers, in 1916. Eventually, federal poison campaigns helped to wipe prairie dogs from 98 percent of their range.
Fortunately, prairie dogs are prolific. But by the mid-1970s, one species, the Utah prairie dog, was so reduced in numbers that the Fish & Wildlife Service listed it as endangered.
It turned out that the main threat to the Utah prairie dog was, guess who?--the Fish & Wildlife Service, which at that time was the federal agency in charge of wildlife pest control. It immediately stopped poisoning the Utah prairie dog and within a few years the happy prairie dogs recovered.
Not so happy is the black-footed ferret, a weasel-like predator that eats prairie dogs and lives in prairie dog burrows. It is a law of ecology that, when you try to eradicate a prey species, the predator goes first. Long before the ESA was passed, the black-footed ferret was known as "the most endangered mammal in North America."
For many years, both before and after the ESA was passed, the Fish & Wildlife Service fretted about the ferret. But it never seriously considered ending its campaign to poison prairie dogs, which after all was the reason why the ferret was endangered.
Finally, in 1984, the last ten living ferrets were captured and the species has since been bred in laboratories and zoos. Even today, federal agencies continue to poison prairie dogs (except in Utah) and the biggest obstacle to recovery of a wild population of ferrets is the lack of any places with enough prairie dogs to support a ferret population. (The second biggest problem is figuring out how to train captive prairie dogs to survive in the wild.)
Environmentalists like to describe the ESA as "the strongest environmental law ever passed." But if it isn't strong enough to stop federal agencies from killing the black-footed ferret's prey on federal land, what good is it?
Although most of the debate over the law is recent times has been over private property rights, it turns out that most listed species are largely threatened by federal subsidies or programs. The unfortunate debate over property rights has given private property the image of being the enemy of endangered species. In fact, it may be their salvation.
The real cause of species endangerment isn't addressed by either the ESA or any of the amendments being considered by Congress. It is the fact that we treat wildlife as a commons. Just as two boys with two straws and one bottle of soda pop will drink the soda much faster than if they each have their own glass, no one has any incentive to protect commonly owned fish and wildlife.
It is time to consider the possibility of private ownership of wildlife. Such ownership will not solve all endangered species problems, but it could help many.
In some cases, people would be allowed to own individual animals. Just as dog breeders compete in sheep herding and other exercizes, black-footed ferret owners might compete on their ability to raise ferrets that can survive in the wild.
In other cases, ownership might extend to entire populations or even a whole species. There are nearly 300 distinct stocks of Northwest salmon. Let's try giving a few to Indian tribes, sports or commercial fishers, or other entities to see how well they do in recovering them.
Ownership of wildlife should not seem a radical idea. People own trees, flowers, water, soil, rocks, land, and other natural resources. Under British common law, landowners can own the fish and wildlife on their land. Since landowners were a tiny minority in Britain, this seemed undemocratic, and we decided to let everyone--and no one--own wildlife.
As it turns out, this decision is why so many species are endangered. The best thing Congress can do to save species would be to let the Fish & Wildlife Service experiment with private ownership of fish and wildlife.