What Is The Endangered Species Act?

Learning About Laws

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) provides for both the conservation and protection of plant and animal species that face the threat of extinction as well as for "the ecosystems upon which they depend." Species must be endangered or threatened throughout a significant portion of their range. The ESA replaced the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969; the ESA has been amended several times.

Why Do We Need An Endangered Species Act?

Challenger, a 10 year-old male bald eagle sits quietly during an event to celebrate the success of the Endangered Species Act
Georges De Keerle/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Fossil records show that in the distant past animals and plants have had finite lifetimes. In the 20th century, scientists became concerned about the loss of common animals and plants. Ecologists believe that we are living in an era of rapid species extinctions that are being triggered by human action, such as over-harvesting and habitat degradation (including pollution and climate change).

The Act reflected a change in scientific thinking because it envisioned nature as a series of ecosystems; in order to protect a species, we have to think "bigger" than just that species.

Who Was President When The ESA Was Signed?

Republican Richard M. Nixon. Early in his first term, Nixon created the Citizens Advisory Committee on Environmental Policy. In 1972, Nixon told the nation that existing law was insufficient to "save a vanishing species." And according to Bonnie B. Burgess, Nixon not only "asked Congress for strong environmental laws ... [he] urged Congress to pass the ESA." (pp 103, 111)

The Senate passed the bill on a voice vote; the House, 355-4. Nixon signed the legislation on 28 December 1973 (PL 93-205).

Who's In Charge of the Endangered Species Act?

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) share responsibility for implementing the Endangered Species Act.

There is also a "God Squad" -- the Endangered Species Committee, composed of cabinet chiefs -- that can overrule an ESA listing. The God Squad, created by Congress in 1978, met for the first time over the snail darter (and ruled for the fish to no avail. It met again in 1993 over the northern spotted owl. Both listings had wended their way to the Supreme Court.

What's The Effect Of The Law?

The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to kill, harm or otherwise "take" a listed species. A "taking" means to "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct."

The ESA requires that the Executive branch of government ensure that any activities the government undertakes are not likely to jeopardize any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat. The determination is made by an independent scientific review by NMFS or USFWS, not by the agency.

What Does It Mean To Be "Listed" Under The ESA?

The law considers a "species" to be endangered if it is in danger of extinction throughout a significant portion of its range. A species is categorized as "threatened" when it is likely to soon become endangered. Species that have been identified as threatened or endangered are considered "listed."

There are two ways that a species can be listed, either NMFS or USFWS can initiate the listing or an individual or organization can petition to have a species listed.

How Many Listed Species Are There?

According to NMFS, there are approximately 1,925 species listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA. In general, NMFS manages marine and "anadromous" species; the USFWS manages land and freshwater species.

  • Nixon/Ford: 23.5 listings per year (47 total)
  • Carter: 31.5 listings per year (126 total)
  • Reagan: 31.9 listings per year (255 total)
  • GWH Bush: 57.8 listings per year (231 total)
  • Clinton: 65.1 listings per year (521 total)
  • GW Bush: 8.0 listings per year (60 total, May 2008)

How Effective Is The Endangered Species Act?

As of August 2008, 44 species have been delisted: 19 due to recovery, 10 due to changes in taxonomy, nine due to extinction, five due to discovery of additional populations, one due to an error, and one due to an ESA amendment. Another 23 species have been downgraded from endangered to threatened. A few key species follow:

  • Bald Eagle: increased from 417 to 11,040 pairs between 1963 and 2007; removed from list
  • Florida's Key Deer: increased from 200 in 1971 to 750 in 2001
  • Gray Whale: increased from 13,095 to 26,635 whales between 1968 and 1998; removed from list
  • Peregrine Falcon: increased from 324 to 1,700 pairs between 1975 and 2000; removed from list
  • Whooping Crane: increased from 54 to 436 birds between 1967 and 2003

Major (Controversial) ESA Actions

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that the listing of the endangered snail darter (a small fish) meant that construction of the Tellico Dam had to stop. In 1979, an appropriations bill rider exempted the Dam from ESA; bill passage allowed the Tennessee Valley Authority to complete the dam.

In 1995, Congress again used an appropriations bill rider to limit ESA, imposing a moratorium on all new-species listings and critical habitat designations. A year later, Congress released the rider.

Highlights From History: The Endangered Species Act

1966: Congress passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act in response to concerns about the whooping crane. A year later, USFWS bought its first endangered species habitat, 2,300 acres in Florida.