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Endangered Species Act: 50 Years Of Protecting The Vulnerable

Photo Courtesy USFWS

The United States Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects species on the verge of extinction. Its legislation traces its roots back to the Lacey Act of 1900, which passed as a direct result of growing public concern about the pending extinction of the passenger pigeon. 

Since then, the federal government has expanded its efforts to the ESA we know today, which works to save threatened and endangered species and their habitats. So far, the law has protected more than 1,600 species facing extinction and other threats — including many iconic American animals such as the bald eagle.

Photo Courtesy USFWS

In 1966, Congress passed the earliest version of the protection — the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 — the first comprehensive endangered species legislation. Under that act, the very first list of endangered species was compiled. It included 14 mammals, 36 birds, three reptiles, three amphibians, and 22 fishes

Seven years later, on Dec. 28, 1973, President Nixon signed the act into law. That passage made the act the primary federal means to protect habitats, plants, and animals nationwide. 

In its first 50 years, the act has saved 99% of listed species from extinction. Some of those brought back from the brink of extinction include the peregrine falcon, the American alligator, the grizzly bear, and the whooping crane.

The need for this legislation may never have been more critical than it is today. The U.S. has the second-highest number of endangered species of any country globally. A species is considered threatened if scientists believe it will soon become endangered or, worse, extinct and gone forever. Once a species makes the ESA list, hunting, capturing, or harming that plant or animal without a permit is illegal. 

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), as of December 2023, the U.S. has more than 1,670 native species safeguarded under the act. It also lists 698 species in other countries.

Photo Courtesy Percy Ulsamer/USFWS

Now entering its 51st year, the ESA continues to protect the country’s environment.

“The law helps us grapple with a core value conflict that’s embedded within American culture and our nation’s values related to economic prosperity and growth alongside our values related to natural resources, healthy ecosystems, and species that are of historical and cultural significance. …”  Sarah Reiter, associate vice president of ocean conservation practice at the New England Aquarium, told CAI’s Eve Zuckoff. “The science has taught us that it’s really essential for us to protect this biodiversity that we find through the species, some of which are at risk and endangered.”

Photo Courtesy New England Aquarium 

Two government groups work in tandem to enforce the act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service handles land and freshwater species, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oversees all saltwater species.

These federal agencies count on the collaborative actions of state, local, and Native governments and lean on the efforts of conservation organizations and private citizens for maximum enforcement.

The ESA is one of the most critical conservation tools in the U.S. government. Protecting species and their habits also keeps communities healthy and adds an economic benefit to recreation and park economies.

Photo Courtesy WWF

“The [Endangered Species Act is] one of the best gifts we’ve ever given ourselves,” the WWF said in a news release. “It’s our nation’s most effective law to protect at-risk animals and plants from extinction both nationally and abroad.”

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