All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1996

Noah’s Choice: The Future of Endangered Species

Federal Policies Should Respect Man as Part of the Environment

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction).

For some people, nature is sacred. To them, little is more important than preserving biodiversity—the great expanse of animal species. For instance, in the view of Paul and Anne Ehrlich, extinctions must be stopped because of their “religious” conviction “that our fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth . . . have a right to exist.

A cynic might say that if animals have this right, let them assert it. But they don’t have to, since the federal government currently does so for them through the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The result has been costly: economic growth foreclosed, draconian mitigation procedures imposed, and private property effectively seized. Of greatest concern may be the devastating impact on people’s liberty. For example, development of large stretches of property around Austin, Texas, ground to a halt after the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the golden-cheeked warbler as “threatened.” When a rancher asked if he could cut a couple of posts to fix his fence, one agency official responded: “We can’t generalize. We have to do it on a case-by-case basis. You’ll have to contact us.”

Into the emotional issue of endangered species delve Charles Mann and Mark Plummer, science journalist and economist, respectively. The result is an entertaining book that mixes policy analysis with snapshots of the actual impact of government policies on communities across America.

Estimates of the number of discovered species range as high as 1.8 million, “but one cannot be sure,” explain Mann and Plummer. The number of undiscovered species is almost certainly higher—between two and four million are common estimates. But some scientists think the total number of insects alone could be six million. As Mann and Plummer put it, “our planet is stuffed to bursting with life.”

An inevitable result of so much life is a certain amount of death. Species do disappear—most spectacularly the dinosaurs. Man didn’t start the extinction process, though his impact has been significant.

At what rate man kills is in dispute. Apocalyptics abound: Thomas Lovejoy of the World Wildlife Fund predicts that fully one-quarter of the earth’s species could be eliminated by the year 2025. Thomas Ehrlich even contends that “Homo sapiens is no more immune to the effects of habitat destruction” than any other creature.

However, as with such controversies as global warming and ozone depletion, real scientists are increasingly weighing in against the scaremongers. Many are genuinely concerned, but nevertheless reject hysteria. Observe Mann and Plummer:


Is the extinction crisis, then, a chimera, the figment of some biologists’ imagination? The answer is more complex than a simple yes or no. Extinction rates are surely on the rise, but the number of verified disappearances is a tiny fraction of the multitude of species thought to exist. . . . We need much more evidence to believe that the world is in the midst of an immediate extinction crisis.

Species preservation is not cheap. The problem is much more than denying profits to wealthy developers. It involves everyone’s quality of life. Mann and Plummer begin their book with Oklahoma’s Nicophorus americanus burying beetle, which held up construction of a road connecting a community of poor Choctaw Indians to a hospital. Who is to say that the protection of this one of perhaps six million insects was more important than the health and comfort of several thousand impoverished people?

The federal government, that’s who. There are several important technical issues involving the implementation of the ESA, the history of which Mann and Plummer relate in fascinating detail. But more fundamental is the question: why? Why work so hard to preserve species at all? Mann and Plummer neatly debunk the practical arguments, such as the potential for developing new, life-saving cures for diseases.

The real issue is what Mann and Plummer call the Noah Principle: “Because it’s there.” Purists want to protect anything that exists. In contrast, the public likes what can be best termed charismatic mega-fauna: eagles and elephants, for instance. Most creatures, like burying beetles, generate no public support. Then there are varieties of life that most people would prefer to kill, like the species of monkey in which the AIDS virus is thought to have first developed.

Mann and Plummer call for balance. They warn: “We must choose, a nerve-wracking selection among praiseworthy ends that has tragic overtones, and sometimes tragic consequences.” The ESA does not allow us to make such choices, however. Although it intends to enact the Noah Principle, it has failed, despite its enormous cost. It has not halted the decline of species, with successful removals from the endangered list outnumbered one-hundredfold by additions.

Thus, the authors make a number of practical proposals, the most important of which is to sharply reduce the legal duties imposed on owners of property with wildlife habitat. Where the government wants to preserve habitat, it should purchase the property—something already done by private groups like the Nature Conservancy. Forcing the government to pay would force it to trade off the protection of species against other, competing goals.

The environment matters, including the diversity of species. But man, too, is part of the environment. Federal policies must be changed to better reflect this reality, something much more likely to occur if policymakers read Noah’s Choice.