Understanding the Endangered Species Act

We here at Talkin' Birds seek to keep our listeners informed about developments in the world of birds and birding, so we've written this simple explanation of the Endangered Species Act and what makes it controversial. Why now? Because lawmakers in Washington, DC are going over it very carefully these days in order to decide what, if anything, should be changed about it. We ought to warn you: If you Google "Endangered Species Act of 1973," the top two results are strongly opinionated–in opposite ways. There's a lot of argument right now. Here, we hope, is a balanced picture. 

The Endangered Species Act, or ESA, was signed into law in December 1973 by President Richard Nixon. Scientists had recognized for about a century that human activity was causing the extinction of fish, animals, and birds. While a few laws had been enacted to prevent over-hunting individual species (for instance, the American Bison), this law was the most comprehensive in that it intended to prevent and reverse extinction of all domestic endangered species, including maintaining and restoring their habitat. The Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 set the stage for the ESA by establishing a list of species in need of help. In 1969, the Act was emended to include species in danger of worldwide extinction. The ESA was and is more comprehensive in scope than both previous Acts. 

We bird-lovers have probably heard how the Bald Eagle, the Whooping Crane, and the Peregrine Falcon, among others, have returned from the brink of extinction because of programs supported by the ESA. Millions of acres of habitat have been preserved; eggs have been incubated; chicks have grown up to reproduce successfully. Aside from birds, species from wolves to whales have been rescued so that each may continue to benefit its own ecosystem, not to mention the other species with which it interacts. (Every species that's saved is important to several others.) We have heard much about the good the ESA does.

But as successful as the ESA sounds, it is not without controversy. Some critics argue that, of the over 2000 species listed since 1973, fewer than 2% have recovered enough to come off the list. These critics feel that these numbers are proof that the ESA isn't helpful. Further, the ESA does not address the exotic pet trade within states. This means that, even though endangered species can't be sold internationally or even across state lines, they can be "donated" between states and even sold in the same state—which they feel means that those species really aren't being protected. But the most vocal critics of the ESA say that protecting habitat from human activity is, well, restrictive to humans. When it comes down to it, they argue, is the survival of a rare animal really more important than the use of its habitat to benefit human beings? Is, say, preserving a rare fish more valuable than providing drinking water for a community's children? This is a tough ethical question, and lawmakers have wrestled with it for decades. The mining and timber industries are hit particularly hard by ESA-based restrictions. In 1978, the ESA was emended to allow for species exemptions; these keep lawmakers arguing for months in states where a rare species risks being wiped out by industry. 

This simplified explanation of the Endangered Species Act is only a start. If you'd like to learn more, we hope you'll check out these resources. We've tried to choose impartial ones, but, as we warned above, that's difficult. If you find any others you like, please let us know. As stewards of this planet and its inhabitants, let's keep one another in the loop. 

-The EPA's (Environmental Protection Agency's) summary

-The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's

-Wikipedia's entry on the Endangered Species Act of 1973