President Richard Nixon kicked off the environmental decade of the 1970’s by signing off on the framework to create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There was a growing concern about the startling rate of species extinction and the necessity for a framework to prevent further losses. The bison, passenger pigeon and whooping crane were held up as examples of unprecedented species loss. Lawful measures were pursued to punish violators and expand environmental protection powers. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed into law by the President with the support of Congress on December 28, 1973. The law was aimed at protecting and conserving threatened or endangered species along with their habitats. Habitat protection was unprecedented for the time. The act is enforced by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The framework can initiate lawsuits, enforce imprisonment, impose fines, and enact forfeiture to violators of the ESA.
The primary goals of the ESA are to prevent extinction, recover species to the point of delisting, and promote the conservation of ecosystems. Species are listed as either endangered when they are in danger of becoming extinct throughout their habitat or as threatened, which means they are likely to become endangered in the near future. The legal framework prohibits the “taking” of listed species, which includes killing, trapping, collecting, harming, or harassing them. Furthermore, it is illegal to trade, sell or use products created from the species. Critical habitat, land a listed species occupies or that is important for survival, was officially designated and protected. The protected habitat was spared destruction from human impact and often required restoration. Projects that may endanger a critical habitat cannot be approved for funding. Finally, States harboring protected species would be allocated additional funds for protection and restoration.
The act has listed over 1,300 species (EPA, 2022) as endangered and/or threatened which include the bald eagle, humpback whale, gray wolf, California least tern, and the western snowy plover. Hundreds of species have been saved from near extinction, and without the ESA, wolves, grizzly bears, and panthers would not exist in the US.
There is an additional economic benefit from protecting wildlife. Communities dependent on wildlife gain from tourism and increased jobs. Wildlife watching generated $45 billion and created more than 860,000 jobs throughout the US. Millions of dollars are allocated to communities where listed species exist and can be used to enhance the local economy. Protected animals and vegetation may someday help produce cures for fatal diseases. A study conducted at Louisiana State University in 2011 found that alligator blood can successfully destroy 23 strains of bacteria, and is known to be resistant to antibiotics. The ESA has led to successful recoveries, allowing several species to be delisted due to improvements. Species like the gray whale, manatees, sea turtles, southern sea otter were delisted because their species has recovered.
There have been challenges to the ESA that threaten to limit the scope of its authority and favor economic benefits over species survival. Private landowners frequently claim that protected species are restricting activities in their territory. Regardless, the act has widespread support among Americans. In February of 2023, the Department of Interior proposed new regulations to strengthen the ESA. The rule would promote species conservation through voluntary agreements known as Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances. The CCAA allowed non-federal landowners to voluntarily commit to conservation actions to protect or restore local species. If they committed to the actions successfully landowners will not but be subject to further application of regulation and/or restricting property use. The ESA needs to be constantly updated and protected or we may potentially lose critical species. The benefits of the act have allowed us to enjoy species that may currently be extinct without it. We must fight to protect it and important species for future generations to enjoy as well.