The United States Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 may be one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation ever passed by the United States Congress. Recognizing the ecological importance, economic value, and intrinsic worth of wildlife and plants, the ESA was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 28, 1973. The Act has a broad scope, providing a framework for the conservation and recovery of endangered and threatened species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. It is administered primarily by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At the time, the bald eagle served as one of the prime examples for need of the law.
In his signing statement, President Nixon said, “This important measure grants the Government both the authority to make early identification of endangered species and the means to act quickly and thoroughly to save them from extinction. It also puts into effect the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora signed in Washington on March 3, 1973.
Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans. I congratulate the 93d Congress for taking this important step toward protecting a heritage which we hold in trust to countless future generations of our fellow citizens. Their lives will be richer, and America will be more beautiful in the years ahead, thanks to the measure that I have the pleasure of signing into law today.”
Under the ESA, species may be listed as either endangered or threatened. An “endangered” species is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, while a “threatened” species is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. The process of listing a species under the ESA involves a scientific assessment of its status and threats, followed by a period of public comment. Once a species is listed, the Act provides a variety of protections, including prohibitions on “taking” individuals of the species, which includes harming, harassing, or killing, as well as trading or selling.
Critical to the ESA’s implementation is the designation of critical habitat, which is the specific geographic areas that contain features essential for the conservation of a listed species. Federal agencies are required to ensure that any action they authorize, fund, or carry out is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of its critical habitat. This interagency cooperation is a key component of the ESA, ensuring that species conservation is integrated into federal agency planning and action.
The ESA also mandates the development and implementation of recovery plans for listed species. These plans are blueprints for restoring the health and stability of endangered or threatened species, with the ultimate goal of delisting the species. Recovery plans outline the tasks required to achieve this goal, including research, habitat restoration, captive breeding programs, and other conservation actions. The success of the ESA is often measured by the recovery and delisting of species, such as the bald eagle and the American alligator, which have rebounded from the brink of extinction.
Despite its successes, the ESA has faced challenges and controversies. Some landowners and developers view it as an impediment to economic growth and property rights, while conservationists argue that the Act is essential for preserving biodiversity. Amendments and legislative proposals have sought to modify the ESA, aiming to balance conservation with economic interests. Nonetheless, the ESA remains a cornerstone of U.S. environmental law, symbolizing the nation’s commitment to preserving its natural heritage for future generations. Its continued evolution and implementation will play a critical role in the fate of the country’s most vulnerable species.