Public choice issues surrounding endangered species protection

So far, we have seen some evidence that political factors can determine how policies get implemented, or even if they get enacted in the first place. Let us now take a more systematic approach to understanding the influence of politics in endangered species protection by applying the insights of public choice theory. In this subsection, we shall return to the context of the United States and the Endangered Species Act. The basic issue is the extent to which political factors have influenced the creation and implementation of the ESA.

As we saw in chapter six, under the public choice approach we think of government policies as being fundamentally driven by interest group pressures. Interest groups “demand” policies, which are then “supplied” by legislators. Supply occurs through the enactment of legislation designed to accomplish specific goals, such as endangered species protection. Under the U.S. congressional system, in order to enact legislation, bills have to be crafted by legislators, make it out of committee, endure floor debate, and then, eventually, be voted on by legislators. Only bills that muster majority support among congresspersons and senators can make it to the president’s desk for her/his signature. And, once passed, in many cases, government agencies such as the EPA or the Fish and Wildlife Service are then charged with implementing the policy, under the oversight of an appropriate committee.

This description suggests two key points where we can focus an analysis in order to investigate how politics affects policy outcomes: (a) on the floor of Congress, and (b) in the behavior of agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service that are charged with implementing policy. I should add that administrative agencies are themselves also often subject to political pressures from interest groups. Let us take these one at a time, in the order in which they appear in the legislative process.

I. Congressional lawmaking

Let us begin with a fundamental question: How do we know that politics matters when it comes to carrying out the provisions of the ESA? To answer this question, one approach is to take particular legislation and observe patterns of correlation between legislative support and measures of interest group influence on the legislators. Then, depending on the patterns, we can draw conclusions regarding what political factors matter.

This approach was taken by the economists Sayeed Mehmood and Daowei Zhang in a study of political support for various amendments to the original ESA.They argued that patterns of support would be revealed in House roll-call votes on passage of the amendments. One of the amendments was to exempt theTellico Dam project from operation of the ESA, which we encountered in our earlier discussion of the snail darter. The other amendments were all to ease restrictions imposed by the ESA on businesses. The authors found several interesting patterns of support for easing business restrictions, including that they were more likely to be supported by southern Republicans representing rural districts with a large construction sector. They concluded that both economic and ideological factors help explain support for protection of endangered species [Mehmood and Zhang (2001) |.

II. Agency behavior

Another possibility is that political considerations influence which species are listed as endangered, or the length of time it takes for species to be listed. As we have seen, under the ESA, primary responsibility for listing decisions rests with a government agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service. The question is: How could political factors influence the listing decisions of the FWS?

There are two possible political avenues for this to occur. One is through direct pressure from interest groups.This can occur in several ways: by nominating species for listing, filing suit if the FWS fails to act quickly enough, and providing public comments on proposals for listing. A second is through their congressional representatives sitting on committees charged with agency oversight. If committees engage in effective oversight, they may be able to influence the listing process.

It turns out that both of these avenues have been used to influence FWS listing decisions, according to multiple studies. A study by the economist Amy Ando found, for example, that public pressure on the FWS can affect how quickly individual species get listed [Ando (1999)]. This is a potentially important factor, recalling our earlier discussion of preemptive harvesting of habitat by logging companies. The longer it takes species to be listed, the greater is the ability of companies to preemptively harvest in order to avoid ESA regulations.

Two other economic studies found that listing decisions can be influenced by congressional oversight of the FWS. One study found that states that enjoyed greater representation on the committee charged with budgetary oversight of the FWS had fewer listings of endangered species. Another study came to a similar conclusion, finding that more “environmentally friendly” oversight committees, as measured by the average legislator score from the League of Conservation Voters, tended to have more species listings.6

The bottom line is that political factors seem to play an important role in the United States in determining both how much endangered species protection occurs and how quickly it occurs.This occurs through at least two channels. One is decisions by legislators to modify the overall stringency of ESA regulation through occasional legislative amendments. The other is the effect of both direct public and legislative pressure on the FWS decisions to list endangered species. Thus, the public choice framework provides a good deal of insight into the way policy for endangered species protection is actually implemented in the United States.

Key takeaways

  • • As of 2019, roughly 30,000 species are threatened with extinction. This constitutes over one quarter of all species worldwide. Furthermore, the rate of extinction appears to be accelerating.
  • • Both the United States and Europe have enacted major protective legislation to combat species extinction within their borders. In addition, international trade in endangered species products is regulated under CITES.
  • • The economic approach to endangered species protection involves the weighing of the costs and benefits of preservation. A key element of the benefits of protecting a species is its contribution to overall biodiversity.
  • • There is evidence of bias in endangered species protection in the United States toward disproportionate protection of large animals and birds, at the expense of fish and reptiles.
  • • The habitat set-asides policy may provide perverse incentives to private landowners, resulting in destruction of wildlife habitat.
  • • Two types of approaches for protecting endangered species are the top-down fortress approach and die bottom-lip participatory approach. We are seeing increased reliance on the participatory approach in recent years, but it has experienced uneven success.
  • • International trade bans on ivory are predicted to have mixed effects in protecting elephants.
  • • There is evidence of political influence in both the creation and implementation of endangered species protection policies in the United States.
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