In announcing his reversal of the Bush Administration's Section 7 consultation rule under the Endangered Species Act, President Obama declared: "For more than three decades, the Endangered Species Act has successfully protected our nation's most threatened wildlife, and we should be looking for ways to improve it, not weaken it." This is a strange thing to say, as the ESA has completely failed to recover threatened and endangered species. As I have noted here and elsewhere (see also here and here), the ESA has an abysmal record at recovering species.
Well over 1,800 species are listed as threatened and endangered under the ESA. As of this morning, when I checked on the FWS website, a total of 46 species have been "delisted" — that is have been removed from the list of threatened and endangered species. Of these, 26 were delisted because of an initial data error in the listing (FWS miscounted or misidentified a species) or due to extinction. (17 and 9 respectively.) Of the remaining species, many of these species' recovery have absolutely nothing to do with the Endangered Species Act. Several bird species, for example, were almost certainly helped by the de facto DDT ban, but this was done in 1972, a year before the ESA was enacted. Several other species, such as some species of Australian kangaroos and birds from Palau, are indeed doing better, but the ESA had no role with these species either. In the few instances in which the ESA might have helped, such as with the Aleutian Canada goose, the key actions had nothing to do with the Act's primary regulatory components. (The goose, for instance, was largely helped by predator control, not controls on private land.) In sum, it is not clear that there is a single species — not one of the 1,000-plus — that has been recovered due to the primary regulatory provisions of the Act. If this is President Obama's idea of "success," I don't want to know what constitutes a failure.
UPDATE: To be clear, as explained in some of the links above, I do not believe there is a single example — not one — of a species that was recovered due to the ESA's regulations of private land. But, some may wonder, is it at least helping species and preventing their extinction? Not likely. As I have blogged extensively (again at the links above) there is substantial evidence that, for many species, the ESA actually causes harm by discouraging habitat conservation and actually encouraging preemptive habitat destruction. It is impossible to prove what would, or would not, have occurred if we had a different species conservation law. But if, after 35 years, there are few-to-no examples of the ESA's regulations successfully recovering one of the 1600-plus listed species, and growing evidence that the law works against the sorts of measures — habitat conservation on private land — one can claim that there is no evidence of the law's "success," and ample reason to believe it is an utter failure.
SECOND UPDATE: Is it fair to use the number of recoveries as a measure of the ESA's success? Well, this is the standard the ESA itself establishes, and I think it is perfectly appropriate to measure the success or failure of a law based upon its own stated objectives. Section 2 of the Act explicitly states that the purpose of the Act is the "conservation" of endangered and threatened species. "Conservation," in turn, is explicitly defined in Section 3 to mean "to use and the use of all methods and procedures which are necessary to bring any endangered species or threatened species to the point at which the measures provided pursuant to this Act are no longer necessary." So, conservation is recovery according to the express terms of the Act, and this is what the Act completely fails to do.