When Congress passed and President Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the purpose of the measure was “to provide for the conservation, protection, restoration, and propagation of threatened and endangered species of fish, wildlife, and plants, and for other purposes.” Since then, more than 1,500 species and subspecies have been listed as endangered, a designation that prompts a multitude of regulatory actions supposedly designed according to the law's purpose. Despite the hundreds of billions of tax dollars spent over the years implementing the ESA, a new congressional report made public yesterday provides abundant evidence that the law has been hijacked by environmental lawyers working on the taxpayer's dime.

The report was prepared by the 13-member Endangered Species Act Working Group from the House Committee on Natural Resources, chaired by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. Consider this startling fact: Only 2 percent of the species and subspecies placed on the ESA list have recovered sufficiently to be delisted. The report juxtaposed that statistic with the claim of the Center for Biological Diversity that “the ESA is 99.9 percent effective in preventing extinction.” The report makes clear there is a profound difference between preventing extinction and promoting species recovery. It also makes clear that groups like the CBD have transmogrified the ESA's original mission into an obsession with listing as many species as possible.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are the main federal agencies with ESA enforcement roles. Federal law allows tax-funded reimbursement of attorney's fees incurred by advocacy groups bringing environmental litigation. As a result, the CBD and similar-minded Big Green outfits like Wild Earth Guardians “taking advantage of strict and unworkable statutory deadlines in the ESA, have filed literally hundreds of ESA lawsuits and thousands of petitions, and in essence, have overtaken the ESA priorities of the FWS and NMFS.”

Hundreds of millions of tax dollars and countless work-hours that should have been devoted to helping endangered species recover are lost whenever federal officials must instead focus on litigation and regulatory processes related to determining whether a particular species should be listed as endangered under the ESA. Even so, Big Green groups like the CBD and WEG have succeeded in forcing federal officials to expand the list of species being considered for possible listing to more than 1,000, thanks to two court litigation settlements of 13 separate suits that the FWS accepted in 2011.

But the settlement doesn’t prevent other Big Green groups from filing ESA listing cases, and, as the report notes, “[a]fter these settlements were signed, it did not take the organizations long to start filing additional petitions. In July 2012, CBD touted filing the ‘Largest Petition Ever’ targeting amphibians and reptiles for 53 species in 45 states.” It appears that filing ESA cases not only generates revenue from tax-funded attorney reimbursements; it also provides sensational copy for Big Green fundraising appeals. That means it’s time for Congress to take a hard look at overhauling the ESA.