What Is the Endangered Species Act and How Does It Work?

Many people have heard of the Endangered Species Act. But do you know what it does and how successful it has been?

May is Endangered Species Month, so now’s a great time to look more closely at the Endangered Species Act. The ESA’s purpose is “to protect and recover imperiled species” and the habitats they need to survive, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And it’s a law that works: 99 percent of all plants and animals listed as “endangered” actually avoid extinction.

Congress passed the ESA in 1973. The intent of the law was to protect animals and plants from extinction because certain “species of fish, wildlife, and plants have been so depleted in numbers that they are in danger of or threatened with extinction [and] these species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.

The ESA is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for terrestrial and freshwater species and by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service for marine species.

Helping Species Recover and Thrive

The ultimate goal of protection, of course, is to allow the plant or animal to recover from the brink of extinction — and hopefully to thrive thereafter. Almost 1,700 species are currently listed under the act, according to National Geographic.

We can easily identify the many successes of the ESA. The world still has animals — including the American bald eagle, the American alligator, the brown pelican, the humpback whale, the grizzly bear, the peregrine falcon, the Florida manatee and the gray wolf — thanks to the protections of the act.

Under the ESA, a species may be listed as “endangered” or “threatened,” which are defined in this way, per the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

  • Endangered: “A species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
  • Threatened: “A species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.”

There is little practical difference in how the government enforces endangered species protections compared to protections for threatened species.

It is illegal under the ESA to “take” a protected species or to engage in interstate or international trade of listed plants and animals, including their parts and products, except when authorized via federal permit. “Take” means more than killing a species. It also means to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such activity,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Species are listed as either threatened or endangered on the basis of their biological status and threats to their existence. Threats to a species typically come from habitat destruction, pollution, over-harvesting, disease, predation and other natural or man-made influences.

The government evaluates a species on these five factors:

  1. Damage to, or destruction of, a species’ habitat
  2. Overutilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes
  3. Disease or predation
  4. Inadequacy of existing protection
  5. Other natural or manmade factors that affect the continued existence of the species

Social and economic factors are never part of this analysis.

The ESA also protects the “critical habitat” of imperiled species. This “includes geographic areas that contain the physical or biological features that are essential to the conservation of the species and that may need special management or protection,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

What About the IUCN Red List?

When one thinks about endangered species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List also comes to mind. According to the IUCN, more than 27,000 species around the globe are facing extinction.

The IUCN Red List calls itself “the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species.”

Although categorization by the IUCN as Not Evaluated, Data Deficient, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild or Extinct doesn’t carry a legally enforceable status, the information provided is critically important. The IUCN’s data is often used to make Endangered Species Act listing decisions, National Geographic reports.

The Red List provides up-to-date indications of the health of the world’s biodiversity, which conservationists can use to guide their decisions. According to the IUCN:

“The IUCN Red List shows us where and what actions need to be taken to save the building blocks of nature from extinction. It provides a straightforward way to factor biodiversity needs into decision-making processes by providing a wealth of useful information on species.”

The IUCN has assessed the status of more than 98,500 species for the Red List. And according to the organization, it’s working to assess 160,000 species by 2020.

Success or Failure?

Is the Endangered Species Act a success? It depends on whom you ask.

Scientists estimate at least 300 species would have been lost to extinction without this law. Critics say the law isn’t working because we still have so many species listed, while supporters respond that the ESA has kept 99 percent of those species from dying out.

I’m a fan of the Endangered Species Act. I don’t want to live in a world without it. If we can keep politicians from gutting the ESA as a favor to business interests, we might just bring a few more species back from the brink.

It’s a noble effort. And it needs to continue, unobstructed by greed or carelessness.

This May, Care2 is launching a campaign to protect endangered species. Join us to save these real-life fantastic beasts!

Photo credit: Airubon/Getty Images

46 comments

Richard B
Richard B2 months ago

Thank you

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Sandra V
Sandra V2 months ago

Thanks

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Sandra V
Sandra V2 months ago

Thanks

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Lesa D
Lesa D2 months ago

#124421 petition signed...

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Lesa D
Lesa D2 months ago

thank you Susan...

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Anna R
Alice R2 months ago

thank you for sharing

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Renata B
Renata B2 months ago

Thank you. There is very little time left and in too many cases it is already too late. We just need to move our a^ses and quickly too.

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Leo C
Leo Custer2 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Ruth S
Ruth S2 months ago

Thanks.

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Ruth S
Ruth S2 months ago

Thanks.

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