The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1973 and was reauthorized in 1988. The purpose of the ESA is to recover species around the world that are in danger of human-caused extinction. There are three basic elements to the ESA program: the creation of a list of endangered animals and plants (the Endangered Species List), the formulation of recovery plans for each species on the list, and the designation of critical habitat for each species listed. Through this program, the act seeks to provide a means of conserving those species and their ecosystems.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), a part of the Department of Interior, is the federal agency responsible for listing (or reclassifying or delisting) endangered and threatened species on the Endangered Species List. The National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for many species that live in the oceans. The decision to list a species is based solely on scientific factors. Once a species is placed on the list, the US-FWS is required to develop a plan for its recovery and to designate “critical habitat” for the species. Critical habitat is an area that has been deemed essential to the physical and biological needs of the species, either in their original range or an area similar to it. The designated critical habitat must provide appropriate space for population growth and normal behavior so that a species may recover. The critical habitat designation does not prohibit human activity or create a refuge for the species. Once it has been established, however, any federal agencies planning to build on that land (a highway, for example) must seek the permission of the USFWS. Any other activities requiring federal permits must go through the USFWS as well. Private landowners are not affected, except that the designation alerts the public to the importance of the area in the species’ survival. The ESA explicitly states that the economic interests of the human community must be given ample consideration in designating critical habitats and requires the balancing of species protection with economic development.
When a species is placed on the Endangered Species List, it is positioned in one of two categories:
• Endangered: A species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant part of its range.
• Threatened: A species that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
The ESA outlaws the buying, selling, transporting, importing, or exporting of any listed species. Most important, the act bans the taking of any listed species within the United States and its territorial seas. “Taking” is defined as harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, cutting, trapping, killing, removing, capturing, or collecting. The taking of listed species is prohibited on both private and public lands.
Violators of the ESA are subject to heavy fines. Individuals can face up to $100,000 in fines and up to one year’s imprisonment. Organizations found in violation of the act may be fined up to $200,000.
In 2003 there were 1,253 species on the Endangered Species List. This total included 517 animals and 746 plants.
In the 30 years since its passage, the ESA has been continually targeted by its many opponents. Some of those opponents believe the ESA prohibits human progress, placing the rights of other species ahead of the rights of humans. There are many interest groups who lobby against the ESA: building and real estate development associations oppose ESA because it could present some federal impediments to the large financial gains to be made in constructing new communities or facilities; loggers, farmers, fishers, hunters, fur traders, and others whose means of making a living are affected are also heavily represented in anti-ESA activism. Politicians, even those who nominally support the ESA, do not often find it politically advantageous to provide the necessary support and funding to rescue little-known animals or to oppose large and powerful companies.
On May 28, 2003, the USFWS announced a moratorium (suspension of activity) on designating critical habitat for endangered species—a required step under the ESA. The Department of the Interior said that its critical habitat program had run out of money. Of all the 1,253 endangered species to date, only 426 had critical habitats, and since 2000, those had shrunk in size considerably. Large conservation groups had repeatedly taken the government to court for its failure to designate critical habitat for a listed endangered species. The courts continuously upheld the requirement under the ESA for the USFWS to designate critical habitat for a species once it had been listed on the Endangered Species List.
Spokespeople from the Department of the Interior contend that the critical habitation designation system is unreasonably expensive and that it is not effective in saving endangered species. They also argue that the cost of these lawsuits over critical habitat designation is depleting the budget for protecting species. Many environmental groups, however, argue that critical habitat designation, flawed though the program may be, has been effective in the recovery of many species. Since habitat loss is considered to be the largest factor in the recovery of endangered species, the limited power of the program to protect habitats often represents the only hope for many species. Many endangered species, even if their populations could be increased, are simply running out of places where they can survive in the wild.
In the early 2000s, the issue of endangered species has increasingly become one of the arenas in which U.S. political divisions are playing out very dramatically. In the meantime, some of the species included in Endangered Species, 2nd Edition, are losing the last few acres or streams or caves or hillsides they require to survive; others stand only a few individual animals away from extinction.