Endangered Species Laws

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Endangered Species Laws

A species (group of like organisms that can reproduce) is listed as endangered if it is in immediate danger of extinction throughout all or a significant part of its habitat. Fossils show that many plants and animals have become extinct over millions of years. As of 2004, there are about 400 animals and 600 plants that are native to the United States listed as endangered. Over 125 animals and nearly 150 plants are currently listed as threatened. A species is listed as threatened if that species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.

Many species of plants and animals become endangered and extinct naturally, usually due to changes in climate or loss of food sources. However, over the last several centuries, humans have posed a new threat to plants and animals. Human activities have resulted in the extinction of thousands of species. Human activities, such as hunting and pollution, continued to endanger many species. Worldwide, over 1,500 species of plants and animals are listed as endangered. Nearly 200 of these endangered species are fish or other aquatic animals.

Causes of species' extinction

The rapid growth of the human population over the last several centuries led humans to develop more land. The development of land for farming often leads to clearing native forests and jungles. Clearing these lands leads to the destruction of the habitats of many species. The destruction of a species' habitat may lead to their endangerment and extinction due to the loss of food and shelter.

Human activities that have caused pollution have also led to loss of habitat and the endangerment and extinction of species. Human advancements in technology have increased greatly from the mid-eighteenth century. During the Industrial Revolution (1750–1900) humans shifted from economies based on agriculture and small businesses to industry and large corporations. Coal and petroleum, which cause pollution, powered the machines of the Industrial Revolution and today. Pollution can cause the extinction and endangerment of species by harming that species' shelter, food source, and water supply.

Whether for food or sport, humans have also hunted several species into endangerment and extinction. The dodo, a flightless bird, was hunted into extinction by humans and nonnative animals that invaded its habitat. Between 1850 and 1910, settlers in the western United States hunted the American bison until it was endangered. In the twentieth century, poachers threaten the survival of the African elephant and rhinoceros. Poachers are hunters who illegally kill wild animals in order to profit from the sale of the furs, hides, tusks, or other parts of the animals.

Humans have had an even more severe impact on marine wildlife. Pollution, in particular, has taken a great toll on aquatic animals, because these species are often more sensitive to changes in habitat than plants and animals on land. Commercial fishing and whaling also threatened the existence of fish and whale species. The survival of the Atlantic salmon for example, is threatened in the wild today. Fishing and whaling were some of the first areas to face strict government controls and laws to protect species from further endangerment.

Endangered Species Protection Act of 1966

By the mid-twentieth century, the negative influence of humans on plants and animals became apparent. With thousands of species facing extinction, many nations passed laws to save these species. The United States Congress passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966 and the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1969. These two laws were a major step towards recognizing the need for humans to act in order to prevent the extinction of plants and animals.

Despite the positive step forward of the Endangered Species Preservation Act and the Endangered Species Conservation Act, the two acts did little to prevent the extinction of species. The Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 only allowed for animals native to the United States to be listed as endangered. Once a species was identified as endangered, the Endangered Species Preservation Act offered little protection for that species. The Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 allowed for species around the world to be listed as endangered. The law also prohibited the import of endangered species into the United States.

Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972

By the mid-twentieth century, human activity threatened the existence of numerous marine mammals. Familiar marine mammals include otters, walruses, dolphins, manatees, and seals. In 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a law designed to protect marine mammal populations.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act established a halt on the hunting, capturing, and killing of marine mammals by anyone in United States waters. The Act also prevents United States' citizens from hunting, capturing, and killing marine mammals anywhere in the world, not just in United States waters. The Marine Mammal Protection Act also prohibits the import of marine mammals or marine mammal products into the United States. Marine mammal products include walrus tusks and seal furs.

Two government agencies, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service, share the responsibility of enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act. These agencies also measure the number of marine mammals in U.S. waters. If the population of a particular species of marine mammal is too low, then steps are taken to increase that species' population.

Heightened need for protection of endangered species

Realizing the need for increased protection of endangered species, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973. After signing the Endangered Species Act into law, President Richard Nixon (1913–1994) stated, "Nothing is more priceless and worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed."

Under the Endangered Species Act, species may be listed as endangered or threatened. Once a species is listed as endangered or threatened, the Endangered Species Act provides for strict protective action to be taken in order to preserve that species. Recovery plans prevent hunters and fishers from killing an endangered species or threatened species. Landowners are also required to avoid taking any action that would threaten the survival of an endangered or threatened species. Landowners may not clear land or remove water from an area that is a natural habitat for the endangered or threatened species.

One of the primary goals of the Endangered Species Act is to provide protection that allows the population of a species to recover. Once the population of the species has rebounded, it is removed from the list of endangered or threatened species. An endangered species may also be downgraded to threatened as its numbers increase.

Endangered Species Act of 1973

The Endangered Species Act is administered by both the United States Department of the Interior and the United States Department of Commerce. The Department of the Interior's United States Fish and Wildlife Service enforces the Endangered Species Act to preserve all land and freshwater species, including the California condor, gray wolf, and southern river otter. The Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service enforces the Endangered Species Act for all marine species, including Atlantic salmon, blue whale, humpback whale, and the leatherback sea turtle.

The government also works with private landowners to conserve the habitat of endangered and threatened species. The Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service use the best scientific and commercial data available when determining whether to list a species as endangered or threatened. This is often a difficult process. Years of study are often required to identify a group of animals as a distinct species.

Once the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service lists a species as endangered or threatened, they work to create a plan to preserve the species. Recovery of the species' population is the ultimate goal. These preservation plans are the most controversial part of the Endangered Species Act. The most important part of these plans is the preservation of the species' natural habitat. Habitat conservation plans often involve preventing the construction of buildings or roadways that would destroy the habitat of the species.

The Endangered Species Act has been successful in preventing the extinction of species in the United States. However it has had limited success in population recovery and removal from the list of endangered or threatened species. Over 1,300 species have been listed on the Endangered Species Act's list of endangered or threatened species. Only 30 species as of 2004 have had population recoveries that allowed their removal from the list.


In 1963 The World Conservation Union called for an international meeting to discuss the trade of endangered species, and The Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 repeated this call. In 1973 eighty nations met in Washington, D.C. and wrote the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES went into effect in 1975.

Every year, billions of dollars worth of plants and animals are traded. Most of this trade involves the shipment of food, leather goods, and wood. Much of this trade is "harmless," or not related to endangered species. CITES ensures that the trade of these goods is conducted in a way that will not reduce the number of the plant or animal too quickly.

CITES has been relatively successful. Over 30,000 species of plants and animals are protected under CITES. Since CITES went into effect in 1975, no species listed under CITES has become extinct. CITES has not been able to stop the illegal trade of plants and animals. In 2004, nearly one-fourth of all plant and animal trade was illegal. Stopping the illegal trade of plants and animals requires the cooperation that participate with CITES. In 2004, 166 nations were members of CITES. Customs agents for each CITES member are responsible for preventing illegal plants and animals from entering or leaving that country.

The Endangered Species Act also signals the United States' participation in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. Also passed in 1973, CITES restricts international trade of plant and animal species that are endangered or threatened by such trading. Perhaps the best-known example is a ban on the trade of elephant ivory. The Endangered Species Act lists nearly 600 endangered or threatened plants and animals that are not native to the United States. Under the Endangered Species Act and CITES, it is illegal for anyone in the United States to buy, sell, or trade these plants and animals or any product that contains them.

Joseph P. Hyder

For More Information


Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.http://www.cites.org (accessed on September 8, 2004).

"Endangered Species Related Laws, Regulations, Policies & Notices." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.http://endangered.fws.gov/policies (accessed on September 8, 2004).

"Legislation." NOAA Fisheries.http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/legislation.htm (accessed on September 8, 2004).