Endangered Species Act (ESA)
Overview and Context
Publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 ushered in a new era of American environmental awareness, stewardship and activism. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s man-made environmental disasters—the Centralia, PA coalmine fire in 1962, the Cuyahoga River fire in Ohio in 1969—were juxtaposed with the creation of innovative environmental policies—the Clean Water Act (1962), the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Toxic Substance Control Act of (1972)—powerful environmental interest groups—the Natural Resources Defense Council formed in 1969—and Federal agencies designed to safeguard the natural environment—the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970.
On December 28, 1973, the Endangered Species Act, which had undergone several transformations since the mid-1960s, was passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) represented a significantly strengthened extension of several earlier legislative attempts to protect animals, plants and their habitats from the destructive forces of human population growth and development.
Importantly, the ESA ratified the treaty known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which was designed to curtail international commerce in potentially imperiled plants and animals. Seen holistically, the regulatory and enforcement mechanisms of the ESA represented a significant step towards combating the black market trade in rare and exotic species. Additionally, the ESA provided a mechanism for preserving plants, animals and their habitats within the United States from careless, and sometimes unscrupulous development. Since its enactment in 1973, the Endangered Species Act has undergone numerous revisions with significant amendments in 1978/79, 1982/88 and in the early 1990s.
Origins of Endangered Species Protection
The rapidly declining population of the American Whooping Crane in the 1930s spurred Federal interest in endangered species. By the 1950s, with public interest in protecting endangered species growing, the federal government began to report annually on the status of the Whooping Crane population. Protection for imperiled species then progressed in piecemeal fashion throughout the 1960s.
In 1962, the Congressional Committee on Rare and Endangered Species was formed and subsequently published a listing of 331 species in danger of extinction. A stipulation in the 1963 Congressional Provision in Land and Water Conservation Fund Act earmarked funds to purchase crucial habitat for certain species. In 1966, the first incarnation of the ESA was created. Titled the Endangered Species Preservation Act (ESPA), the ESPA was primarily concerned with protecting habitats, not species. In 1969, the ESPA was significantly overhauled by Congress and renamed the Endangered Species Conservation Act (ESCA). The ESCA, among other things, expanded the scope of endangered species protection to species outside the U.S., primarily by regulating the importation of imperiled species from other countries. By 1973, the ESCA was altered and expanded again into the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Further protections for indigenous species within the United States, and for species outside the U.S. (via CITES) were implemented.
Primary Components of the ESA
The goal of the ESA is to protect animals (including vertebrates and invertebrates), plants and habitats that have “esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to America and Americans.” Oversight responsibility for the ESA resides with the Secretary of the Interior via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and also with the Secretary of Commerce. Species listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered or threatened have their statuses reviewed every 5 years. In addition, the ESA provides support to states in order to ensure adequate protective measures for plant and animal species and their habitats.
Additionally, the ESA restricts or regulates the importation or exportation, taking, and unlawful possession, distribution or sale of any listed plant, animal or invertebrate species. Criminal and civil penalties for violating ESA prohibitions generally take the form of fines of between $25,000 to $50,000 per violation and potential incarceration of between 6 months and 1 year.
The ESA Today
Over 1,300 species currently listed as endangered or threatened, receive protection under the ESA. Since the 1960s, only 13 species have been removed from the endangered/threatened list as a result of population recovery (including the Bald Eagle in 2007), leading some to criticize the efficacy and worth of the ESA in realizing its goals and helping to re-establish endangered species within the country.
Proponents of the altruistic vision of the original ESA abhor the multiple amendments that have, in their view, reduced its usefulness. For example, the 1978/79 amendments to the ESA created a special review committee that made it easier for federal agencies to undertake projects with potentially adverse impacts on endangered or threatened species (e.g., the Tellico Dam Project in Tennessee). Amendments in the 1990s also made the ESA more amenable to the development goals of state and private landholders.
Despite criticism of the ESA’s effectiveness over the last several decades, it remains clear that the landscape of the American natural environment would be quite different today had the ESA not been created. As a result, the ESA remains an important and significant milestone in U.S. environmental policy.
Rachel Carson; Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; Environmental Protection Agency; National Environmental Policy Act of 1969
Goble, Dale D. Scott, Michael J. Davis, Frank W. (Eds.). The Endangered Species Act at Thirty. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006.