What is Endangered Species Act? 10 Things (2021) You Need To Know

In 1973, the United States Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which recognized our rich natural heritage in the form of esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value.

Its purpose is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystem on which they depend.

In this blog, we’ll talk about what the Endangered Species Act is and how it can impact landowners.

Let’s get started.

1. What is the Endangered Species Act?

As noted above, the Endangered Species Act is the key legislation for both domestic and international conversation that aims to provide a framework to conserve and protect endangered and threatened plants and animals and their habitats.

It was passed in 1973 and has since been the nation’s most effective law at protecting at-risk species from extinction.

It has a stellar 99 percent success rate.

Once species are listed, they have nearly all avoided extinction.

2. How does the Endangered Species Act work?

The Endangered Species Act allows individuals and organizations to petition to have species listed as either endangered or threatened.

Before a final decision is made on whether a species should be protected, these listing petitions undergo rigorous scientific evaluation and public review.

For any listed species, the law requires protection for critical habitat areas and the development and implementation of recovery plans.

Over time, populations are monitored to determine whether a given species is recovered.

Federal, state, tribal, and local officials must coordinate efforts to prevent extinction.

When a species is considered recovered, it will be removed from the list.

That said, the rebounding of a species is considered a gradual process and requires a long-term commitment to factors like food availability, habitat, reproduction rate, and climate.

3. Who implements the Endangered Species Act?

The lead agencies for implementation are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration Fisheries Service.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a worldwide list of endangered species (birds, insects, fish, reptiles, mammals, crustaceans, flowers, grasses, and trees).

The law requires that these agencies consult with other federal, local, state, and tribal officials to ensure that the actions they authorize are carried out.

The Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) also implements key portions of the Endangered Species Act by regulating the use of all pesticides in the country and establishing the maximum levels for pesticide residue in food.

4. How is the Act implemented?

 The Endangered Species Act is implemented in the following ways:

bulletListing a species

As noted above, for a species to become protected, it must first be listed as “threatened” or “endangered.”

For a species to be threatened, means that it is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.

For a species to be endangered, means that it is currently in danger of extinction.

A proposal to list a species can occur by submitting a petition to public or state agencies. 

bulletDesignating critical habitats

Additionally, for a species to become listed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) must designate a critical habitat, which consists of the specific areas with the physical and biological features essential for the species’ conservation.

The critical habitat may be occupied or unoccupied at the time of listing.

bulletCreating a recovery plan

Prior to listing, the agencies will create a recovery plan.

This will consist of the research and management actions necessary for the recovery of the species.

This plan will specify the actions needed, the expected cost of recovery, and the anticipated timeline of recovery.

This is a science-driven approach, and it’s often seen as the best way to ensure species are put on the path to long-term persistence and recovery.

bulletConsulting with federal agencies

Federal agencies are required to use their authority to conserve any and all listed species.

Thus, their actions should not jeopardize the continued existence of these species or adversely modify or destroy their critical habitat.

If an agency does propose to authorize, fund, or carry out any action that may affect a listed species or its critical habitat, then it must first consult with the FWS and NMFS.

Often, if the action is found to violate the Endangered Species Act, then the FWS and NMFS will recommend modifications to the action that avoid violating the Act.

Although the agency can circumvent these recommendations, it’s ill-advised to do so as courts tend to defer to wildlife experts.

bulletProhibiting actions

Congress has imposed strict restrictions on the “take” of endangered species, which included activities including harassing, harming, and killing.

The Endangered Species Act can shield listed species from significant harm.

However, it does not directly mandate or compel private citizens to take positive conservation actions.

For example, non-federal landowners and managers can obtain a permit (incidental take permit) to “take” a listed species if that take is essential to another lawful activity.

This could be the case if they must plow a field, build a shopping mall, or issue building permits.

Incidental take permits are issued in three different types of agreements.

  1. Habitat conservation plans: these are created as part of an incidental take permit and are designed to reconcile land use or development with listed species conservation
  2. Candidate conservation agreements with assurances: these shield landowners who voluntarily manage their lands for the benefit of candidate species from additional land-use restrictions if the species is subsequently listed
  3. Safe harbor agreements: landowners voluntarily provide habitat protection for a listed species on their properties and receive an agreement that they will not be required to take additional conservation measures beyond what they’ve already agreed to

bulletHelping species to recover

The goal of the Endangered Species Act is to recover as many species as possible.

If a species recovers it will be taken off the endangered species list.

This Act has proved incredibly successful in preventing extinctions and allowing it to work as intended is important. 

5. Why is the Endangered Species Act so important?

If you’re not an animal lover, you may wonder why the Endangered Species Act is so important.

Does it really have any bearing on your life?

The short answer is yes.

The Endangered Species Act provides additional benefits to people by maintaining healthy natural systems that provide clean air and water, food, medicines, and other necessities that are required to lead healthy lives.

For future generations, we should work to be good stewards of the environment and leave behind a legacy of protecting endangered species.

6. Why would anyone want to weaken the Endangered Species Act?

The primary motivation behind weakening the Endangered Species Act is…money.

No surprise there!

It can be expensive to save wildlife because it puts restrictions on land use.

But keep in mind that it can be costly to lose wildlife as well and losing it will cause long-term effects on how we live.

A key part of the Act’s success lies in its flexibility and voluntary agreements with landowners.

These partnerships help to conserve and recover species on their land.

We need this collaboration-based mentality to continue to be successful on all fronts.

7. How effective is the Act?

It’s hard to argue with numbers.

As noted above, the Endangered Species Act has protected 99 percent of the species on the list — meaning that if they’ve been listed, then they’ve avoided extinction.

This makes it the nation’s most effective law to protect species from extinction.

Under the law, at least 46 species have recovered, including grizzly bears, humpback whales, and bald eagles.

In some ways, this is remarkable given that the rebound of any species is a gradual process that requires a long-term commitment and is dependent on many factors including direct threats, habitat, food availability, reproduction rate, and climate.

See the next section about the numbers that reinforce the true success of the Endangered Species Act.

8. What numbers back up the success rate of the Endangered Species Act?

The Center for Biological Diversity has released numerous in-depth reports on the success of the Endangered Species Act.

The most renowned is their 2012 study documenting 110 species that have seen tremendous recovery while protected under the Act.

Most of these species met or exceed recovery timelines set by federal scientists.

Here are some of the quantitative measures of the Act’s success.

bulletFrom 1973 to 2013, the Act prevented the extinction of 99 percent of species under its protection.

bulletThe Act has shown a 90 percent recovery rate in more than 100 species in the U.S.

bulletThe Act has allowed the designation of millions of acres of critical habitat, which is crucial to species’ survival and recovery.

bulletThe Act has strong public support (proven by polls).

9. How does delisting work with the Endangered Species Act?

Delisting is the ultimate goal of the Endangered Species Act.

It’s the hope that a species will be recovered and then be taken off of the list.

To delist a species, the following factors are considered:

bulletThe previous threats are eliminated or controlled

bulletPopulation size growth

bulletStability of habitat quality and quantity

There is also the practice of “downlisting” where a species can be reclassified from “endangered” to “threatened” because certain threats have been controlled and the population has met recovery objectives.

10. Does the Endangered Species Act protect species in the U.S. or overseas?

The current law protects species native to the U.S. in the following ways:

bulletProhibiting, harming, or killing endangered species

bulletBanning the imports and exports of endangered species

bulletRequiring protection for land and water vital to species recovery (a.k.a. “critical habitat areas”)

bulletNecessitating the development and implementation of recovery plans for listed species

The Endangered Species Act protects any endangered wildlife listed through the prohibition or regulation of trade in live animals or their parts and products across U.S. borders and in interstate commerce.

The Endangered Species Act also increases funding for species conservation efforts.

So, while the government cannot directly impact how other countries handle these species, we can impact how we’re interacting with them.

This can be done through treaties, as when the US signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

For example, the red kangaroo has historically been hunted for its meat and hide.

In 1974, it was listed as endangered.

As a result, the Endangered Species Act banned U.S. imports of kangaroos and kangaroo-derived products from Australia, which greatly aided conversation efforts in Australia.

Roughly 20 years later (in 1995), scientists agreed that the species had recovered.

This is a great example of how your actions in your own life can help an issue even if you aren’t able to impact others’ actions.

Final thoughts

The Endangered Species Act is an essential piece of legislation that has helped to protect animal life in our country.

Protecting these species will in turn help provide clean air, water and rich biodiversity for generations to come.

As a landowner, you can be mindful of this act and partner with federal agencies that seek to protect wildlife.

Additional Resources

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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.

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