Endangered Species Act
ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT
Species have evolved throughout the course of natural history, and the fossil record is filled with evidence of extinctions, some of which have been sudden and catastrophic. Ecologists believe that we are in such an era of rapid species extinctions today. The most prominent current cause is human activity, which brings about loss of habitat for species and also causes pollution and overharvesting. For example, the spotted owl is endangered by overharvesting of old growth forests in the Northwest; the bald eagle was nearly rendered extinct in the United States outside of Alaska due to poisoning with DDT and its metabolites; and many species have been hunted to extinction. Species biodiversity has a number of health benefits for people, including maintenance of stable environmental processes that support human life, provision of biological substances that may be useful in pharmaceutical and other applications, and enhancement of the enjoyment of the environment and recreational opportunities.
Enacted in 1973, the Endangered Species Act emerged as a result of concern about extinctions of "various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States" and an understanding that many other species had become "so depleted in numbers that they are in danger of or threatened with extinction." In the act, an endangered species is defined as one for which there is a danger of extinction in "all or a significant portion of its range," unless the species is an insect that has been determined by the secretary of the interior to be a "pest that presents an overwhelming and overriding risk to man." A threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. The Endangered Species Act replaced an earlier statute, the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969.
The Endangered Species Act was revolutionary in that it explicitly recognized that to protect species one must conserve "the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend." Specifically, "critical habitat" is the area occupied by a species requiring protection that contains the physical or biological features that are essential to the conservation of that species. It does not include the entire potential geographic area that can be occupied by the threatened or
The act explicitly applies to the actions of "all departments and federal agencies" and also requires that the federal government work in concert with state and local agencies to resolve water resource issues involved with the conservation of endangered species. DOI issues "biological opinions" that set the stage for actions to protect endangered species by other agencies.
The act also incorporated provisions for implementation of a number of international agreements, including:
- Migratory bird treaties with Canada and Mexico;
- The Migratory and Endangered Bird Treaty with Japan;
- The Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere;
- The International Convention for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries;
- The International Convention for the High Seas Fisheries of the North Pacific Ocean;
- The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The protection of endangered species is very complex and involves inherent conflict and competition over the use of resources. Critical habitat may be in the hands of private owners, and there may therefore be conflicts regarding property rights. The DOI has evolved mechanisms to help minimize these conflicts. Biological opinions and listing decisions written by its biologists receive peer review by outside scientists to provide assurance of a strong scientific basis. Interior has a policy of developing "habitat conservation plans," which seek to bring all the critical players to the table to develop and agree on plans for conserving critical habitat for endangered and threatened species.
LYNN R. GOLDMAN
U.S. Congress (1973). Endangered Species Act of 1973. Available at http://endangeredspecies.fus.gov/esa.htm.