Thursday, October 6, 2016

Honeybees and My Two Cents on the Endangered Species Act

Honey bees play an important role in the agricultural sector. $577 billion of global food output depends on honey bees, although that figure is disputed by some. If the honey bee population dies substantially, that means that, at the very least, food prices are going to experience a significant hike. There has been concern about the declining population of honey bees for quite a few years, but only in 2006 did experts start referring to it is colony collapse disorder. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped up its bee protection game a notch last week by protecting certain species of honey bees under the Endangered Species Act. Hearing this news, I asked myself two questions that I would like to try to answer:
  1. Does the current state of the honeybee population warrant being protected under the Endangered Species  Act?
  2. Regardless of honeybee population size, is the Endangered Species Act an overall good method of protecting endangered species?

Current Honeybee Population
Do we have a "Bee-pocalyse" on our hands? Is the situation so dire that we need to protect honeybees from extinction? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been keeping honeybee data since 1976. The Washington Post wrote an article on the honeybee population last year. Looking at the chart (1987-2014) below from the aforementioned data, what we see is an overall increase in honeybee population since 2006. As a matter of fact, we are at a twenty-year high, although the number of colonies was higher in the late 1980s. 

The Washington Post article pointed out that commercial beekeepers have been helping with the increase since 2006 either by splitting one healthy colony into two colonies, or by buying "packaged" bees. The article concluded that rather than succumbing to colony collapse disorder, the market actually responded by boosting up production. Granted, there was a slight decline reported in May 2016. According to the USDA, there are 2.59 million colonies which represents an 8 percent year-to-year decline in comparison to 2015. Whether this signals a downward trend or is an anomaly remains to be seen.

On the one hand, the number of honeybees is still nowhere near the low we had experienced around 2008. If we look at other countries, the Canadian bee population has increased over the past few years, as is the case for the global population. The evidence seems to point towards an overall increase of honeybees. I'm also not particularly worried about neonics (systemic pesticides targeted towards unwanted pests, i.e., not towards bees) because the global honeybee has been overall increasing since the introduction of neonics in 1995. On the other hand, given the importance that the honeybees play in food production, perhaps it is better to be safe than sorry, at least in an American context. Let's be risk averse for a moment and assume that greater effort needs to be put into increasing the honeybee population. Does protecting honeybees under the Endangered Species Act help?

Effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was enacted to protect imperiled species from extinction due as a "consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation." Section III of the Act states that it also exists to "bring any endangered species or threatened species to the point at which the measures provided pursuant to this Act are no longer necessary." How does it fare?

It depends on the metrics you use to measure success. Politifact found that only 1 percent of the 2,000+ species that have been added to the list have been delisted, meaning that they are no longer endangered. Out of the 66 species that have been delisted, 19 of the species (28.7%) were delisted because of data errors, and another 10 species (15.1%) became extinct. If the goal is to prevent extinction, then losing 10 species out of over 2,000 species, is a high success rate. This does assume that the Endangered Species Act was the sole contributor of success, as opposed to DDT bans or adding species to the list that are foreign species, and thus outside of the purview of the EPA. And none of this assumes that the delisting process is flawless, which it is not.

However, if the ultimate goal, which is used by the EPA itself in Section III of the Act, is to bring about the recovery of species, then the Endangered Species Act has failed. I would argue that the recovery of species is much more important not only because a given species can survive on its own, but also because it means we, the taxpayers, do not have to continue to pay for that species' conservation.

Speaking of cost, the Federal Register stated in 2010 that while these laws are well-intentioned, these laws have many negative unintended consequences (p. 78460), particularly the species on private lands. The punitive restrictions both disincentivize voluntary conservation of species, as well as incentivize discretely removing species in order to avoid regulations or fines. It becomes a problem when endangered species are incentivized to be treated more of a liability than an asset, which is what the Endangered Species Act does for many species. Two such example of endangered species becoming more endangered as a result of the incentive structure are the red-cockaded woodpecker (Lucek and Michael, 2003) and the pygmy owl (List et al., 2006).

More to the point, in 2005, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is a government agency, admitted that after 30 years since the enactment of the Act, "the Service has found that the designation of statutory critical habitat provides little additional protection to most listed species, while consuming significant amounts of available conservation resources." So the Act costs about $10 billion a year while adding little protection to these species. Not exactly what I would call a ringing endorsement.

When all is said and done, the issue with the Endangered Species Act is incentives. The current system of incentives is not just about the disincentives created for private property owners, but also about a lack of incentive to protect endangered species, certainly to the point of the species no longer being endangered. The issue here, which is something I brought up when writing about fisheries a couple of years back, is that these species are treated like common goods. In economic terms, a common good is a good that is both rivalrous and non-excludable. The fact that it is non-excludable means that anyone can procure it, and the rivalrous portion means that others are going to compete for its ownership, thereby making over-depletion an issue.

Perhaps the Endangered Species Act prevented some extinction because the endangered species became less rivalrous or more excludable versus the status quo back in 1973. Perhaps not. The bald eagle, for example, was able to repopulate largely because of the DDT ban and state-level initiatives, and not because of the Endangered Species Act. The alligator was not an example of actual recovery via the Endangered Species Act largely because of wildlife commerce, i.e., increased demand in alligator hides. The North American bison had a similar recovery story. Throughout America's history, we saw the population of cattle stay high while the bison population dwindled because cattle was commoditized with strong property rights, whereas buffalo were not considered with the same property rights. Because buffalo were treated as common goods, as opposed to private goods, the buffalo nearly became extinct. It was because of wildlife commerce that we saw the population increase.

Merely preventing the extinction of a species, while it does have its worth, is certainly not the same as the species ceasing to be endangered. There might be some environmental activists who have an issue with this, but the truth is that we historically have commoditized animals, and we continue doing so to this day. While we can talk about improving the Endangered Species Act, such as an Endangered Species Reserve program, the fastest and surest way for a species to cease being endangered is for it to be commoditized precisely because private property owners of the given endangered species have a better incentive mechanism than the incentive structure under the Endangered Species Act.

Bringing the discussion back to the honeybees, there is not much to suggest that the honeybee population is dying off. If anything, honeybee statistics show an overall increase of its population. Even if we wanted to further increase the honeybee population, that will be best accomplished through commercial beekeepers who have the incentive to continue producing honey at a fair market value. Provided that there are minimal market distortions, the private sector will do more to ensure the longevity of the honeybee than questionable environmental regulations.

No comments:

Post a Comment