History of the United States Endangered Species Act

Conservation efforts to save species of plants and animals from extinction began in the early 1900s. A species of plant or animal is considered extinct when there are no living members of that group found alive anywhere on Earth; in other words, all members of that group have died. Human activities have caused the extinction of many species.

Additional species are still faced with the possibility of extinction. In December 1973 the United States Congress signed the Endangered Species Act of 1973, to protect and preserve threatened and endangered plants and animals from extinction. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 replaced two previous laws, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 and the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969.

Extinction (“X-tink-shun”): the act of becoming extinct, a species is extinct when no living members exist

The Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 required a list to be made of endangered species and money from the Land and Conservation Funds to be used to purchase habitat for the protection of the species listed. This Act also required the Fish and Wildlife Service, a government agency devoted to the management of fish and wildlife, to spend money on the management of the listed endangered animals. There was one big problem with the Act of 1966. There were no regulations that protected the killing and trading of those listed endangered animals. Therefore animals faced with the possibility of going extinct were listed under the Act of 1966 as needing help and protection, but there were no rules or guidelines developed by Congress to help protect them.

The Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 continued to add to the protection of endangered and threatened animals by establishing 2 lists, one for foreign species (species living anywhere outside the United States of America) and the other for native species (species living in the United States). The Act of 1969 did not allow animals that were listed on the foreign species list to be brought into the United States. The Act also did not allow the purchase or sale of any animal taken (killed) illegally.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 took further steps to recognize that endangered and threatened species needed worldwide protection through development of international treaties and conventions. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 also noted that endangered and threatened species were recognized as valuable educational, scientific, recreational, historical and esthetical purposes. Congress therefore wanted this act to protect not only the listed species but also the ecosystem within which these species live and need to survive.

Two categories were established to help classify and aid in setting up conservation programs for species faced with the possibility of extinction. The ENDANGERED category applies to any species considered to be in danger of becoming extinct throughout all or a significant portion of its range. THREATENED refers to any species that is likely to become an endangered species throughout all or a significant portion of its range within the near future.

The administration of the Endangered Species Act is a shared responsibility between two United States governmental agencies: The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for terrestrial (land) and freshwater species and migratory birds. The National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for those species that live in marine environments. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is also involved in enforcing the Endangered Species Act, by overseeing the incoming (importation) and outgoing (exportation) of listed terrestrial plants in the United States.

How does a species get listed as an endangered or threatened species?

There is a strict process that must be followed before a species is listed as endangered or threatened.

  1. A species is proposed for addition to the lists by the public, the Fish and Wildlife Service, other governmental agencies, and biologists.
  2. The public is offered the opportunity to comment about the proposal, and the rule is finalized (or withdrawn).
  3. Species to be listed are selected by the Fish and Wildlife Service from a list of candidates and are recognized using a priority system.

What happens if you hurt, touch, capture, or disrupt an endangered species?

Under the Endangered Species Act, all of those would be violations of the guidelines set down for the protection of the species. Violating the ESA involves most forms of interfering with the recovery of an endangered species, including trafficking, killing, harming, wounding, or simply harassing the animal or contributing to the devastation of its environment. The only way to be allowed to interact with a species classified as endangered is through a license or permit issued by a Federal Agency that permits research or trade, although it can be taken away or modified at any time.

Thus, the penalties for violating the Endangered Species Act and illegally interacting with a member of a protected species are very severe. Violators can face imprisonment or steep fines if their actions come to the attention of the Fish and Willife Service. The size of the penalty increases with the number of violations- either the size of the fine or the length of time spent in prison, with a maximum fine of $50,000 and a maximum imprisonment of one year, or a combination of the two. Violators may also incur civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation, with the highest penalties reserved for unlawful trafficking in a protected species, or what the act refers to as consciously “taking” (which covers capturing and killing.) Simply harassing an endangered animal can carry a fine of $10,500.

Those species facing the greatest threat are given the highest priority.

In order for a species to be listed there must be enough information to support the proposed listing of that species. A species is listed based on its biological status and on the severity of the threat placed on its existence. Therefore, species can only be determined as endangered or threatened by one or more of the factors listed below.

  1. If there is present or threatened destruction and alteration of its habitat.
  2. If there is an over-utilization for commercial, educational, and/or scientific purposes.
  3. If there is a presence of disease or predation.
  4. If there are not enough regulatory mechanisms existing today to protect the species; or
  5. If there are any other natural or man-made factors that may be or currently affecting its continued existence.

Sometimes there is not enough biological information on a species for the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a classification of endangered and threatened. In this case the species is referred to as a “candidate species.”

Some facts about Endangered and Threatened Species

Why should we want to save endangered species?

If we protect endangered species we can maintain a healthy environment.

Biodiversity (“by-oh-die-verse-city”): is a term used to describe the variety of life (called biota) on Earth. This includes the millions of species of plants, birds, reptiles, mammals, fish, shellfish, amphibians, insects, spiders, microorganisms (such as bacteria), etc. Oh! And don’t forget yourself. All living species interact with each other in complex ways and occupy a variety of different habitats throughout the world.

So how can we help protect and save endangered and threatened species?

Learn more about endangered/threatened species and spread the word to your community.

Here’s How:

Get involved in habitat restoration

Here’s How:

Habitat (Hab-a-tat): the environment in which a plant or animal lives

Take the first step toward becoming a scientist by learning how to gather data and how to monitor environmental resources and wildlife.

Here’s How:

Get your class to adopt a river, stream, wetland or watershed in your area. By adopting an area of land you will be able to monitor its water quality, plants and animal distribution. At the end of the year your class can discuss your findings. Such findings might include changes in the presence or absence of animals in the area and possibly changes in the water quality. Take the discussion a step further by imagining how these changes may impact the living things within your adopted area and surrounding areas.