The ESA is the single most controversial environmental law in the
nation. It is widely recognized that the Act doesnt work. There
have been repeated efforts since the 102nd Congress, and especially
since the 104th, to reform, even to replace it. Scores of mainly
western congressmen were elected on a reform pledge. There have
been massive demonstrations and rallies against the ESA all across
the country, largely by small landowners, homeowners, retirees,
homebuilders, farmers, ranchers and tree farmers who have been
prevented from using their property, harvesting their trees, using
their water, grazing their cattle, managing their fields, or even
building a home on their own lot.
Because of this massive opposition to the ESA, even leading environmentalists
and state and federal wildlife officials have recognized that
the Act is broken, because its perverse incentives, penalizing
landowners for being good stewards and leaving wildlife habitat
on their lands, have caused most landowners to live in fear of
the Act. Therefore, all too many take steps to make their lands
unattractive to wildlife for fear of losing their land and property.
The Act is bad for species and bad for people.
Unfortunately, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and many of his
allies, have undertaken a massive disingenuous effort to mislead
the public by flooding the nation with press releases, appearing
with photogenic animals and declaring the Endangered Species Act
a great success. An often gullible, and sometimes compliant, media
has then repeated Babbitts misinformation to a hopeful and unknowing
Good news is welcome. From our school children up, the public
is steadily bombarded with catastrophic scenarios of extinction
(and every other conceivable environmental calamity), and thus
they flock to the good news, unknowingly being deceived.
Over the last few years, in the face of the congressional ESA
reform movement, Babbitt has shamelessly proclaimed the Act a
success at every opportunitythe bald eagle, the gray whale, even
a group of extinct species. It is difficult to judge which of
Babbitts false claims has been most egregiousbut his peregrine
scam probably retires the cup.
DDT caused the endangerment of the peregrine, bald eagle, brown
pelican and a few other species which, on accumulating sufficient
amounts of the chemical, laid thin-shelled eggs that failed to
hatch. The Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in December,
1972. The ESA was passed in December 1973.
A network of falconers, raptor biologists and conservationists
concerned with the peregrines disappearance, created the private
Peregrine Fund in 1970, with the sole goal of restoring the peregrine.
Their goal was not national land-use control or ending timber
harvesting or cattle ranching; it was seeing the peregrine race
through the skies again. Working in voluntary association with
thousands of individuals across the U.S. and in foreign countries,
they developed the techniques to successfully breed peregrines
in captivity and then developed the techniques to release young
birds into the wild.
For over 30 years the Peregrine Fund restored and recovered the
peregrine. Not only did they achieve this with no help from the
ESA (other than a little money mostly obtained through their friends
in Congress), but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and many environmentalists
opposed the Peregrine Fund at nearly every stage of its heroic
efforts at private conservation. Efforts to get permits to move
captive birds to breeding facilities or to capture a few wild
birds to bring genetic diversity into the captive breeding stock
were wrapped in interminable red-tape delays. Interior even set
up a sting, the infamous falcon scam, Operation Falcon, in a
vain and shameful attempt to discredit falconers and the Peregrine
Having achieved their goal, with peregrine populations near or
at or above historic levels in various states, the Peregrine Fund
announced they had accomplished the task of restoring the peregrine
two years ago and were ending captive breeding and release programs.
They then began planning a gala North American Peregrine Falcon
Victory Celebration at their world HQ in Boise on August 20-21,
As the date approached, no one knew what Babbitt would do. The
peregrine was already recovered, but FWS officials and environmentalists
worship the ESA for its national land-use control powers and many
wanted to keep the peregrine on the endangered or threatened list,
regardless of the facts, so they could retain the authority to
regulate private landowners and industry.
At the last second, Babbitt announced that he was crashing the
party. Two days before the event Interiors press release still
said only that Babbitt would announce his decision to delist or
not. However, in a last second recognition of an obvious reality,
Babbitt came racing after the departing victory train, grabbed
hold of the caboose and pulled himself aboard, huffing and puffing.
And then tried to pull off one of the great pieces of flim-flammery
in American history by attempting to pass himself and the ESA
off as the engineer of the peregrines recovery and the victory
There is simply no credibility whatsoever to Babbitts truly outrageous,
and indeed, offensive statement, that his decision to recognize
the obvious reality of the situation and remove the peregrine
falcon from the list of endangered and threatened species marked
one of the most dramatic success stories of the Endangered Species
Act and proves that the Act works. He is attempting to steal
credit away from the rightful heroes.
The Endangered Species Act didnt work. The Peregrine Fund worked.
Private conservation worked. That saved the peregrine. Just as
private efforts saved the wood duck and bluebirds, as Ducks Unlimited
preserved millions of acres of wetlands for wildlife, and on and
on. Voluntary association and private action can and do work where
government force and compulsion fail. Secretary Babbitt should
apologize to the American people and especially to the Peregrine
Fund, its founder Dr. Tom Cade, and all the thousands of volunteers
who worked tirelessly for over a quarter century to recover the
Robert J. Smith is Senior Environmental Scholar at the Competitive
Enterprise Institute, a pro-free market, private property public
policy group in Washington, D.C. Smith is an avid birder, past
president of a county nature club/Audubon chapter and writes regularly
on private conservation success stories and the role of private
stewardship in protecting environmental amenities. He can be reached
at CEI, 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Ste. 1250, Washington, D.C.
20036, 202-331-1010 or <firstname.lastname@example.org>.