In its 45 years of existence, the Endangered Species Act has seen only 40 listed species recover. As Rob Gordon, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy at the Heritage Foundation, observes, if no more animals or plants were added to the list and endangered species recovered at a rate of about 10 per year, it would take more than 150 years to exhaust the current list. He notes, “There is, however, no indication that the list of regulated species will stop growing.”

In a Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, Gordon points out that “almost half of the ‘recovered’ species—18 of 40—are federally funded fiction. They were never really endangered.” Instead, the listings are a product of erroneous population estimates or erroneous determinations of the species’ range. For example, the listing of the Tinian monarch, a small bird living on that Pacific Island, was based on a decades-old observation of some 40 to 50 birds for the entire island. Later, it turned out that there were tens of thousands of birds on the island, of which the Tinian monarch was the most abundant. Gordon observes that when the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) delisted the bird, it “attributed the delisting to recovery instead of the obvious cause of data error.”

Gordon includes two Appendices that illustrate the magnitude of the issue. The first provides additional information on some of the “recoveries” that he believes should be “more accurately classified as ‘original data error.’” The second includes a list of currently regulated species that “merit delisting or downlisting on the grounds of original data error.”

Incorrectly listing a plant or animal as endangered is not cost-free. The FWS incurs bureaucratic costs to list a species through the regulatory process. Other government agencies and States incur costs to comply with post-listing land and water management regimes; in Fiscal Year 2014, the annual species-by-species report the Act requires, which the FWS produces, indicated that the Forest Service spent more than $45 million on more than 150 different species. Finally, there is the economic impact and regulatory burden on landowners.

Gordon calls for an increased level of transparency from FWS when it removes or downlists a species. The FWS should disclose the fact that the original listing was based on one or more data errors. For species that are found to be improperly listed, post-listing management regimes should be abandoned and the funds designated for those activities redirected. He has other recommendations for listing and reporting that he believes would help correct the record and improve accountability and transparency.