Turning power over to states won’t improve protection for endangered species

Since the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, the U.S. government has played a critical role in protecting endangered and threatened species. But while the law is overwhelmingly popular with the American public, critics in Congress are proposing to significantly reduce federal authority to manage endangered species and delegate much of this role to state governments.

States have substantial authority to manage flora and fauna in their boundaries. But species often cross state borders, or exist on federal lands. And many states either are uninterested in species protection or prefer to rely on the federal government to serve that role.

We recently analyzed state endangered species laws and state funding to implement the Endangered Species Act. We concluded that relevant laws in most states are much weaker and less comprehensive than the federal Endangered Species Act. We also found that, in general, states contribute only a small fraction of total resources currently spent to implement the law.

In sum, many states currently are poorly equipped to assume the diverse responsibilities that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries (collectively, “the Services”) handle today. In our view, therefore, devolving federal authority over endangered species management to the states will almost certainly weaken protections for those species and undermine conservation and recovery efforts.

Endangered and threatened species listings by year for all U.S. states and territories. ESA, CC BY-ND

Science-based decisions

The Endangered Species Act requires the Services to list and then protect endangered fish, wildlife and plants and their habitat, working with expert scientists, state authorities and citizens. It prohibits anyone from harming any listed species, and requires decisions about whether a species is endangered to be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.” While costs are clearly relevant to protecting at-risk species, the law is clear that determinations about whether a species is endangered or likely to be harmed by a particular activity should not be based on the decision’s potential economic impacts.

In addition, the act directs the Services to cooperate as much as practical with states on conserving listed species. This may include actions such as signing management agreements and providing funding to state agencies. The law also allows citizens to petition to list species as endangered and file lawsuits to help enforce the Act.

Congress takes aim

Critics argue, often with little proof, that federal endangered species protection is too cumbersome and costly, and that the agencies act without sufficient input from states and localities. Some contend that endangered species protection can be more effectively and efficiently accomplished by state agencies alone.

USAF biologist Danielle Bumgardner measures a path left by a nesting sea turtle at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., June 22, 2016. All sea turtles found in US waters are listed as threatened or endangered. USAF
The House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Utah Republican Rob Bishop, has approved five bills that would weaken key provisions of the Endangered Species Act. These measures would:

Observers expect similar legislation to be introduced in the Senate. And Utah Senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch have reintroduced a bill that would remove all federal ESA protection for species found within the borders of a single state. Such action would eliminate federal protection for hundreds of currently listed species, including the Florida panther and Florida manatee.

These legislators argue that states should play a larger role. When a federal appeals court found that the Endangered Species Act barred the Services from transferring management of federally threatened prairie dogs in Utah to the state in 2016, Bishop asserted that “Utahns have proven they can maintain prairie dogs. The only thing impeding the state is federal meddling.”

More recently, Wyoming Senator John Barrasso said, “Endangered species don’t care whether the federal government, or a state government, protects them. They just want to be protected.”