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The Great Gator Hoax

The American alligator is thriving—no thanks to the Endangered Species Act

(Green Watch, February 2013 – PDF here)

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, which has been criticized for blocking construction projects, destroying jobs, and allowing the virtual confiscation of people’s property by making land unusable. In the future, the ESA may be used to justify government policies related to “global warming.” Yet one of the most-cited examples of ESA success, saving the American alligator from extinction, simply never happened. The alligator had been well-protected before the ESA was passed. Was it ever endangered at all?

American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) lives only in the United States, mainly in the Gulf Coast region. The state reptile of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida, it is an emblem of Southern swamplands—and an American icon like the bald eagle, the American bison, the prairie dog, the mountain lion, the wild turkey, and the grizzly bear.
That’s why the story of the alligator’s comeback, from “endangered” status to thriving, strikes an emotional chord with Americans. And that’s why it matters that the story as usually told is perhaps the biggest hoax in the history of wildlife conservation.

For decades, we’ve heard that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) saved the alligator from extinction. Almost as soon as the ESA passed in 1973, environmental pressure groups have credited the act for the reptile’s survival. Today, this narrative appears on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website and the sites of most environmentalist groups.

Examining the true story provides considerable insight into wildlife conservation, the Endangered Species Act, the tactics of environmental groups, the ways those groups sway bureaucrats, and the media’s role in spreading misinformation. The real story involves science, federalism, and the use of markets and commerce to achieve policy goals.

The beginning of the ESA
In 1973, the Endangered Species Act passed the U.S. Senate 92 to 0 and the House of Representatives 355 to 4. Obviously, the act stirred little controversy, and few Americans appreciated the power it would give the federal government. Most politicians and journalists assumed it would be like previous animal protection legislation such as the Lacey Act of 1900 (which prohibited interstate trade in animals protected by states), the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, and the Endangered Species Preservation Act (ESPA) of 1966. The ESPA authorized the Interior Secretary to make a list of endangered fish and wildlife and allowed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to spend up to $15 million per year to buy habitat for listed species. Federal land agencies were directed to preserve endangered species’ habitat on their lands “insofar as is practicable and consistent with their primary purpose,” and other agencies were encouraged but not required to protect species.

When the ESA was passed in 1973, politicians and the media assumed that the ESA’s scope would be limited to a few animals and that only overt acts such as hunting and trading endangered animals would be restricted. Now, the ESA is considered America’s most powerful environmental law, perhaps the strongest environmental law in the world.

Yet much controversy has arisen over the ESA’s actual record in achieving its purpose of helping species so that they no longer need protection. To date, 26 species and sub-species have recovered, according to the FWS, but a closer look reveals most of these species and sub-species owe much or almost all of their recoveries to factors other than the ESA. In some cases, the act harmed these species. The alligator is a prime subject of the tall tales associated with the Endangered Species Act.

False claims
The alligator never merited the ESA’s protection for two reasons: its population was large and healthy at the time of the act’s passage—around 734,000 and rising—and the threat of large-scale illegal hunting for its valuable hide essentially stopped following the 1969 amendment of the federal Lacey Act, several years before the ESA’s 1973 passage. Even though the alligator never should have been listed, and, on net, the ESA harmed the animal’s conservation, the act’s proponents and most media types make grand claims that the alligator is a success story:

►“The Endangered Species Act is the most innovative, wide-ranging and successful environmental law that has been passed in the past quarter century. I can cite case after case: the resurgence of the American alligator. . . . The opponents of the Act know these facts.”—Bruce Babbitt, then Interior Secretary, currently a trustee of the World Wildlife Fund

►“In concept and effect the [Endangered Species] act is easily the most important piece of conservation legislation in the nation’s history. Its most dramatic successes include the recovery of the American alligator . . .”—Edward O. Wilson, professor of biology, Harvard University

►“Each of the species in this report [including the American alligator] has been saved from near extinction by the Endangered Species Act. Some of these species have recovered so successfully that they have been removed from the endangered species list.”—joint statement by Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Endangered Species Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, and U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group)

The claim that the alligator recovered due to the ESA is widely accepted in the media. “The American alligator, once listed as an endangered species, has since become one of the Endangered Species Act’s greatest success stories,” the Washington Post’s online magazine Slate claimed last year. The alligator hoax also permeates scholarly literature and educational materials.

What really happened
The true story of the alligator centers on commerce, specifically trade in its skin that is made into some of the most valuable leather goods in the world. States, most notably Louisiana, focused on using this commerce in skins as a conservation tool. Commerce provided people, especially landowners, with strong financial incentives to conserve the alligator and its habitat, and provided jobs and income for others involved in the alligator hide industry. “The best thing people can do for the alligator is to buy alligator products. Buy a belt or bag or boots, and wear them with pride,” says Ted Joanen, Louisiana’s longtime lead alligator biologist and manager, who is also one of the world’s foremost experts in crocodilians. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of the Interior and environmental pressure groups often oppose commerce for ideological reasons.

States led the way in alligator conservation, beginning with Alabama, which passed legislation in 1941 to protect the creature. Following World War II, concern grew across the Gulf South that large-scale commercial hunting of alligators was taking a serious toll. Because of overhunting, the alligator’s population appears to have reached its low point during the late 1950s and the early- to mid-1960s. In response, a number of states began efforts to study and manage the alligator and control hunting.

In 1958, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries began a long-term and well-organized alligator research program. In 1962, Louisiana banned hunting and trade, and in 1964 the state began a more formal long-term research program. Florida banned hunting and trade in 1962 and began its own alligator research program. In 1969, Texas, with the third largest alligator population, banned hunting and trade. These actions led to a steady population increase.

In addition to research and management, the other main focus of Louisiana’s alligator conservation efforts was to shut down illegal hunting by amending the Lacey Act—a federal law prohibiting interstate commerce of wildlife taken in violation of state law—to include reptiles. Officials in Louisiana determined from years of experience that amending the Lacey Act, which would give federal teeth to state-level protections, was the key to stopping the illegal hunting of alligators. Beginning in 1964, state legislators and members of the U.S. Congress from Louisiana pushed for such an amendment, to no avail.

While Louisiana officials were pushing to amend the Lacey Act, the armchair experts at the Interior Department and environmental pressure groups sat on their hands, even as they issued increasingly dire warnings about the alligator’s possible extinction. Their priority, it seems, was politics, not conservation.

In the mid- to late 1960s Interior Department bureaucrats and their environmentalist allies grew increasingly powerful as public attention to environmental concerns rose. (This period is known as the time of the second environmental movement, following the conservation efforts of the late 1800s and early 1900s.) Environmentalists pushed through a number of major pieces of legislation, including the Wilderness Act in 1964, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, and the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969. Amending the Lacey Act to cover reptiles would have required much less effort and political capital because it was an amendment to an existing, relatively obscure law, yet environmental pressure groups weren’t interested in taking that approach.

The most logical explanation for this inaction is that pressure groups and Interior bureaucrats were biding their time in hopes of using the alligator’s plight to pass more sweeping legislation, such as the two precursors of the ESA: the Endangered Species Preservation Act (ESPA) and the Endangered Species Conservation Act (ESCA). After the ESPA passed in 1966, the Fish and Wildlife Service put the alligator on the newly created endangered species list, based on data that were non-existent or at least a decade out of date. At that point, the alligator became firmly established as a poster species.

After Congress passed two subsequent laws, the 1969 ESCA and the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service, supported by pressure groups, carried over the alligator to the new list—without bothering to see whether it merited listing. Why bother? All right-thinking people believed as a matter of faith that commerce-induced overhunting threatened the alligator with extinction. As journalists say, the story was “too good to check.”

At the dawn of the second environmental movement, environmental activists and Interior bureaucrats realized that funding, media coverage, prestige, and membership in pressure groups would all increase dramatically if they played their political cards correctly and used public relations effectively. But what if some of the poster species for this new movement, like the alligator, weren’t imperiled because they had healthy, increasing populations? What if the species weren’t imperiled for the reasons activists and bureaucrats claimed? Such fundamental questions were dismissed as inconvenient distractions.

Among pressure groups, the National Audubon Society led the charge to have the alligator listed under federal laws. Charles Callison, Audubon’s point man in Washington, spoke in favor of the 1969 legislation: “The National Audubon Society was founded more than half a century ago, when a fashion for plumes for ladies’ hats threatened to wipe out the egret. Laws were passed then to protect wild birds, and egrets and other herons are plentiful in America today. In the same way, we believe that the alligator and other species threatened by today’s fashions can be saved. To this end we urge prompt passage of this legislation.” Yet, by the time Callison spoke, Louisiana and Florida had been actively managing the vast majority of the alligator population for years, and, if groups like Audubon had bothered to support a reptile amendment to the Lacey Act, illegal trade could have been all but stopped by 1964 or 1965.

The pressure groups, however, were less interested in taking concrete steps to conserve alligators than they were using the animals as a symbol of the perils of wildlife commerce—and as a vehicle for fundraising and legislative advocacy. If Congress just amended the Lacey Act, the problem of illegal commerce in alligator hides would be solved by a relatively obscure piece of legislation unfamiliar to the general public and most members of Congress. On the other hand, if illegal commerce could be harnessed to the larger issue of endangered species legislation, that would substantially raise the profile of both issues and the groups claiming to “solve” them.

Indeed, once the Lacey Act amendment was passed in 1969 (as part of the Endangered Species Conservation Act), large-scale alligator hunting all but ended, just as Louisiana officials predicted. The National Wildlife Federation, in a rare display of candor, later admitted that, “In 1970 and 1971, Florida game commission officials used the Lacey Act to convict a few big-time poachers, and alligator hunting was stopped, as it were, dead in its tracks.”

According to Ted Joanen, Louisiana expert manager for alligators, the Lacey Act, not the ESA was the most critical law for alligator conservation.
From the act’s amendment in 1969 through the mid-1970s, when the few remaining large-scale illegal alligator hide dealers were shut down, almost all enforcement actions, even those that occurred after the ESA’s passage in 1973, were filed under the Lacey Act.

Louisiana officials pushed for the 1969 Endangered Species Conservation Act’s passage because it amended the Lacey Act. But the Law of Unintended Consequences came into play. By backing ESCA, and linking it to the alligator cause, they helped reinforce the alligator hoax being propagated by the Interior Department and pressure groups—the claim that broader federal endangered species legislation was necessary to save the alligator from extinction. That would come back to bite Louisiana.

“Renegade” Louisiana
In 1972 and 1973, as Congress considered the Endangered Species Act, Louisiana held two limited, experimental commercial hunting seasons for alligators, after having banned such activity since 1962. By 1972-73, state officials were confident enough in their research and management techniques that they were ready to test them.

Even though hunters harvested a negligible portion of the population, Interior Department officials and environmental activists were furious. They thought Louisiana’s timing could not have been worse. The fact that alligators were sufficiently abundant to endure commercial hunting undermined their argument that the species was nearly extinction and needed the ESA to save it. Also, they saw commercial hunting as blasphemous, because it violated their long-held belief that wildlife commerce and wildlife conservation are incompatible.

The federal government determined to bring to heel the Louisiana officials they saw as defiant of federal authority. Speaking to an author from the National Geographic Society, an unnamed federal official said bitterly, “You’ve got to understand, we deal with 49 states—and Louisiana.”

The non-endangered alligator
To allay the feds’ concerns, Louisiana officials presented evidence the alligator did not merit ESA listing.

Population data: In 1971 the Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed the alligator’s status and requested information from range states. Louisiana supplied data showing the species was not imperiled, and recommended the alligator be removed from the federal list of endangered species. Louisiana also provided the FWS with information on state conservation legislation that had been passed or was planned. Florida also had data, available to the FWS, showing the state had a large and healthy alligator population. Data released in the aftermath of the ESA’s passage provided more confirmation. In 1974, Louisiana estimated the alligator’s total population at 734,384 and increasing over most of its range. This estimate was the result of a 1973 survey, released in 1974, in what became known as “the Joanen Report” after its author, Ted Joanen.

Expert opinion: “The animal never was endangered,” said Joanen. He blamed the erroneous listing on “ivory tower people in Washington and New York” who were determined to use the alligator to promote passage of the ESA. Around the time of the ESA’s passage, “The general consensus [among alligator experts] was that the alligator population was increasing,” according to Tommy Hines of the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, a biologist and top alligator researcher of the period. In 1971, the IUCN (World Conservation Union) Crocodile Specialist Group, regarded as the world’s foremost authority on crocodilians, unanimously agreed to change the alligator’s status to “recovered.” In short, the alligator’s listing under U.S. endangered species legislation was totally at odds with the available data and opinions of the leading domestic and international authorities. Despite this, and despite the fact that the Lacey Act amendment of 1969 essentially shut down illegal trade, the FWS went ahead and listed the alligator under the ESA because, Joanen says, the agency was “in a period of empire building at that time.”

Timing and the alligator’s reproductive biology: The assertion that the alligator recovered from near-extinction so quickly “is quite phenomenal when one considers the age of sexual maturity is 10 years,” wrote Joanen and his colleague Larry McNease. “The original estimate used to justify the alligator being on the endangered species list must have been grossly underestimated,” because the FWS deemed the vast majority of the species’s population had “recovered” by 1983, ten years after the act’s passage, and four years later delisted the remainder of its range.

In fact, FWS started delisting the alligator soon after the ESA’s passage. In July 1975, the FWS proposed to delist or downlist (from endangered to the less imperiled status of “threatened”) 93% of the alligator’s entire population. The delisting proposal referred to three Louisiana parishes that contained 98,551 alligators, and the downlisting proposal referred to the 583,900 alligators in Florida, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and the rest of Louisiana. Given the alligator’s reproductive rate, its turnaround from near-extinction to “recovered” after one and a half years of ESA protection is simply impossible.

And what was the source of the FWS’s 1975 population estimates? None other than the Joanen Report. In 1977, the FWS admitted the report “remains, however, the only comprehensive, state-by-state analysis of alligator population levels and trends,” and “population estimates contained in the original Joanen report are conservative,” while current population levels are significantly higher.” The ESA mandates that the government “shall make determinations [to list species] . . . solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.” Yet even though the Joanen Report and other data supplied by Louisiana and Florida officials constituted the best data available, the FWS ignored that data, listed the alligator anyway, and retained the alligator under the ESA for more than 13 years.

Legalizing commerce: The long fight
After the ESA passed in 1973 and the alligator was improperly listed, proponents of alligator commerce—led by Louisiana and Florida officials and the crocodilian hide industry—waged a six-year battle to legalize international trade in alligator hides. Access to international markets was crucial for the U.S. alligator industry to receive the highest prices because at that time American tanners did not have the ability to tan hides to the highest standards demanded by the international market.

Throughout the process, FWS officials appear to have had little understanding about the fundamentals of trade in crocodilians. This had good and bad effects. First, because Louisiana officials had superior expertise, the FWS eventually adopted much of Louisiana’s management regime, which included a number of innovative and well-tested techniques for tracking alligator hides through the stream of commerce. Second, the FWS’s ignorance, coupled with the agency’s long bias against wildlife commerce, led the FWS to delist the alligator on a piecemeal basis over 13 and a half years, during which time the federal government promulgated absurd regulations. Those regulations were eventually abandoned in favor of Louisiana’s management regime, but meanwhile trade was stymied.

In 1979, the federal government finally ran out of stalling tactics and approved international commerce in alligator hides. Even so, the FWS needlessly refused to grant permission for international trade in alligator meat and parts for another six years, which hurt hunters of wild alligators and producers of captive-bred alligators.

The states and the private sector— not the feds
In reality, the alligator is one of America’s greatest conservation success stories due primarily to the groundbreaking and dedicated work of Louisiana officials, along with those of several other states, and the development of the alligator’s commercial value.

Conserving the alligator required countless hours of hard work under difficult conditions, slogging through hot and humid swamps, handling one of the most dangerous animals in North America, and trying to convince rural landowners, who could be distrustful about or even hostile towards public officials, to tolerate the presence of alligators and even conserve their habitat because the species could be a valuable source of income.

It was cheap and easy it was for environmental pressure groups and federal politicians and bureaucrats to take potshots at Louisiana and advocates of conservation-through-commerce. These armchair conservationists did more harm than good.

The American alligator is probably the most studied crocodilian in the world. The vast majority of alligator research was carried out by state wildlife agencies, especially Louisiana’s, and by a handful of people in academia, many of whom have been associated with state universities in Louisiana and Florida. It was not conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the auspices of the ESA, nor by environmental pressure groups.

The ESA harmed alligator conservation because it halted trade and stymied research efforts. “The only thing the Endangered Species Act did was to slow up research,” says Ted Joanen, because it “took management away from states” and was “a hindrance.” Joanen and McNease assert that “probably the most detrimental effect of the endangered species program at our state level has been the loss of landowner, land manager, and public respect for the program.” And they add that “this relates directly to the way the Act was interpreted and administered. Most private citizens can understand the rationale behind the Endangered Species program. However, they cannot understand why the program is not more responsive to their needs and desires.”

Joanen has also observed that private landowners “are the people who are going to detect a problem” such as illegal hunting or changes in alligator populations. But “if no one’s interested,” because commercial hunting has been curtailed, landowners won’t inform wildlife authorities. As Allan Ensminger of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries put it, “We were the first state to close [the hunting season for alligators]. We invented the idea, rather than the feds. We kind of view ourselves like the guy who threw a snowball off a mountain and the avalanche ran over us.” That’s the reward Louisiana received for its innovative and forward-thinking alligator conservation efforts.
Today, it seems nothing—not the brute fact of the alligator’s reproductive biology, not the population survey data from the time of the act’s passage, not expert opinion, and not the Lacey Act’s role in stopping illegal commerce—can keep proponents of the Endangered Species Act, and most of the media, from claiming the alligator as a success story.

An examination of the alligator hoax raises a number of broader questions: What other environmental issues have been the subject of false and misleading claims by federal officials, pressure groups, supposed experts, and the media? If they can’t get the facts right about something as relatively simple and unambiguous as the resurgence of the alligator—that the animal never should have been listed under the ESA and that the act had essentially nothing to do with its recovery—then how can they be trusted on other, more complex issues such as energy exploration and exploitation, chemical use, biotechnology, and climate change?

Brian Seasholes is an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.