A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cruz Misses Mark on Endangered Species

Ted Cruz said that “one of the worst things that can happen to a species is to be listed on the Endangered Species Act.” But the ESA has led to recovery of a number of species, and there is little evidence that listing harms animals and plants.

In a “Conversation with the Candidate” on New Hampshire television station WMUR, Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, claimed that listing a species could actually hurt it:

Cruz, June 5: One of the worst things that can happen to a species is to be listed on the Endangered Species Act. If it gets listed it’s almost certain to become endangered.

There is little evidence to support the idea that the ESA harms species, and none to suggest that it is among “the worst things that can happen to a species.” And there is in fact evidence that listing helps threatened and endangered species recover.

SciCHECKinsertThe ESA, which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973, requires the Fish & Wildlife Service to consider several factors when deciding to list a species: damage to or destruction of the species’ habitat; overutilization of the species for commercial or other purposes; disease or predation of the species; inadequacy of existing protections; and other factors that could affect the species’ continued existence.

A species can be listed as either “threatened” or “endangered.” In total, 2,220 animals and plants have been listed under the act. A threatened species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future, while an endangered species is at risk for extinction throughout all or most of its range. Once listed, there are penalties for “taking” the species in question — this is defined as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct.”

For many species, officials develop a recovery plan, laying out how best to support the species’ habitat and prevent extinction.

These protections have yielded some success stories. The Fish & Wildlife Service lists 59 species that have been “delisted,” though 10 of those went extinct and 19 were reclassified based on errors. The other 30 have recovered — including species like the American alligator, the Virginia northern flying squirrel and the iconic bald eagle.

Some have criticized the ESA in the past by pointing out that only about 1 percent of listed species have been delisted. This is true, but is not a particularly good measure of the ESA’s success. More listed species have recovered than have gone extinct, and officials have proposed a status change for other endangered species — from endangered to threatened, for example, meaning recovery efforts are having positive effects.

Furthermore, the recovery plans for many species have long timelines — there is no expectation that simply listing a species will lead to its full recovery within a few years. One study, conducted by the environmental nonprofit the Center for Biological Diversity, looked at 110 listed species that have “advanced toward recovery” since being included under the ESA. The center compared the projected recovery timelines with the actual progress, and concluded that 90 percent of species studied are “recovering at the rate specified” by federal recovery plans.

Also in that study, the researchers noted that the average time to recovery was 25 years — considering the ESA is little more than 40 years old, with species added throughout that time, it again makes little sense to measure success by the raw number of delisted species. For example, the 2007 recovery plan for the endangered whooping crane lists a date of 2035 for potential delisting.

The Fish & Wildlife Service itself notes that the ESA has “prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects.” It is of course impossible to say exactly what would have happened without the ESA.

The only evidence we have found suggesting that the ESA could cause harm to conservation efforts is a working paper by three economists published in 2006. They suggest that the listing of a species could provoke private landowners to accelerate development in anticipation of prohibitions being put in place, and thus increase destruction of the habitat in question. The paper was largely an economic modeling study, and it included a case study of only one species, the pygmy owl.

The economists found that land that is deemed critical habitat may be developed as much as a year faster than other land. This could indeed be harmful to some species, but so could destruction of habitats without ESA protections.

Cruz mentioned two animals in particular, neither of which supports his claims:

Cruz, June 5: If someone is developing a neighborhood and you discover — in Texas we had a little lizard, in California they had an arroyo toad. You discover some animal somewhere, you use it to shut the whole development down, so that thousands of people lose their jobs, you don’t have a new neighborhood, you don’t have anything – that doesn’t make any sense.

Cruz has mentioned the dunes sagebrush lizard before. As we have previously written, the lizard was proposed for listing but was never actually listed, with a voluntary conservation plan instituted instead. Though oil and gas developers had worried protecting the lizard would limit production, the decision to leave it unlisted allayed those concerns.

The other animal, the arroyo toad, is indeed listed as endangered under the ESA, and it was involved in a dispute over development of residences in the early 2000s. A developer was found to be engaging in “illegal take” by building a fence across a critical part of the toad’s habitat; court cases found in favor of the government, and the development was not allowed to proceed. Though this one decision is of course not the only factor, the arroyo toad has shown enough progress toward recovery in the 20 years since its listing that the Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed changing its status to threatened.

Though Cruz is right that an endangered species in this case hindered a particular development, he is not correct that listing of the toad had a negative effect on the species itself. In this case, the protections appear to be working.

Proving the ESA is effective based on an absence of harm — that something did not go extinct — is very difficult, but there is even less support that listing a species is somehow among “the worst things that can happen” to it.

Editor’s Note: SciCheck is made possible by a grant from the Stanton Foundation.

Update, June 23: As pointed out by Brian Seasholes writing for the Daily Caller on June 19, there is other evidence beyond what we found suggesting some unintended consequences of the Endangered Species Act. One study, published in the Journal of Law and Economics in 2003, found that landowners in North Carolina were more likely to cut down trees when the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker lived nearby. The study found that they may have preemptively harvested the forest so as to prevent the woodpecker’s arrival, thus avoiding regulatory interference and reducing the endangered animal’s habitat.

The study’s authors acknowledged the study’s limitations: “Finding evidence of [red-cockaded woodpecker] habitat destruction does not imply that there are similar effects for all endangered species,” they wrote. They noted that “preemptive habitat destruction is less likely” for species with more widely dispersed habitats, or where habitat is more difficult to destroy. They also wrote that “the total impact of the ESA on [the red-cockaded woodpecker] is difficult to assess” and that “[u]ndoubtedly the ESA has preserved some” of the bird’s habitat. In other words, the study did not determine that the ESA had done more harm than good.

One other study found similar results, again with regard to the red-cockaded woodpecker. Other evidence cited by the Daily Caller consists of two surveys of landowners and their attitudes about endangered or threatened species; these cannot provide evidence that the ESA actually causes harm to species. Our conclusion that little evidence exists to support Cruz’s claim remains valid.

– Dave Levitan