We find two important causes for species declines. First, a well-intentioned yet poorly conceived legal tradition gives few people an incentive to protect wildlife habitat. Many states discourage landowners from charging for hunting and fishing, for example, and some landowners have been penalized for enhancing nongame habitat.
Second, most listed species are at least partly threatened by federal programs and subsidies. Federal efforts to poison prairie dogs, the ferret's main prey, reduced the black-footed ferret from a population of six million to ten.
The Endangered Species Act has done little to correct these problems. Federal agencies continue to poison prairie dogs and to subsidize other habitat destruction. Species recovery efforts are often obstructed by federal land agencies that have little incentive to comply with the law. Citizen lawsuits have halted some programs, but environmentalists lack the resources to file lawsuits for all deserving species.
Meanwhile, the act has actually added to the disincentives for private landowners to protect wildlife habitat. It is clearly unfair to expect, as the act does, that a few private landowners should pay most of the costs of saving many species when those species benefit everyone.
We conclude that best way to protect species is to reform the act to take a harsher approach to federal subsidies and a gentler, more incentive-based approach to public and private lands. In brief, we propose to: