An endangered species is an animal or plant that's considered at risk of extinction. A species can be listed as endangered at the state, federal, and international level. On the federal level, the endangered species list is managed under the Endangered Species Act.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted by Congress in 1973. Under the ESA, the federal government has the responsibility to protect endangered species (species that are likely to become extinct throughout all or a large portion of their range), threatened species (species that are likely to become endangered in the near future), and critical habitat (areas vital to the survival of endangered or threatened species).
The Endangered Species Act has lists of protected plant and animal species both nationally and worldwide. When a species is given ESA protection, it is said to be a "listed" species. Many additional species are evaluated for possible protection under the ESA, and they are called “candidate” species.
The Endangered Species Act is very important because it saves our native fish, plants, and other wildlife from going extinct. Once gone, they're gone forever, and there's no going back. Losing even a single species can have disastrous impacts on the rest of the ecosystem, because the effects will be felt throughout the food chain. From providing cures to deadly diseases to maintaining natural ecosystems and improving overall quality of life, the benefits of preserving threatened and endangered species are invaluable.
Once a species becomes listed as "threatened" or "endangered," it receives special protections by the federal government. Animals are protected from “take” and being traded or sold. A listed plant is protected if on federal property or if federal actions are involved, such as the issuing of a federal permit on private land.
The term "take" is used in the Endangered Species Act to include "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct." The law also protects against interfering in vital breeding and behavioral activities or degrading critical habitat.
The primary goal of the Endangered Species Act is to make species' populations healthy and vital so they can be delisted from the Endangered Species Act. Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service oversees the listing and protection of all terrestrial animals and plants as well as freshwater fish. NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service oversees marine fish and wildlife. The two organizations actively invest time and resources to help bring endangered or threatened species back from the brink of extinction.
When the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service is investigating the health of a species, they look at scientific data collected by local, state, and national scientists. In order to be listed as a candidate, a species has to qualify for protected status under the Endangered Species Act. Whether or not a species is listed as endangered or threatened then depends on a number of factors, including the urgency and whether adequate protections exist through other means.
When deciding whether a species should be added to the Endangered Species List, the following criteria are evaluated:
If the answer to one or more of the above questions is yes, then the species can be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Bald Eagle: In the 1960s, a mere 500 bald eagles could be found soaring across America's lower 48 states. Dangerous pesticides and chemicals, released into bald eagle habitats, thinned the shells of their eggs, killing their young. By the late 1960s, only 400 breeding pairs of bald eagles were found in the lower 48 states. The outlook was not good for our national symbol. Thanks to the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, bald eagle numbers have rebounded to more than 7,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles today. Captive breeding programs, habitat protection, and a ban on DDT (a chemical compound used to kill insects) contributed to the successful recovery of this American symbol. The species has made an astounding comeback thanks to the amazing work of American citizens, businesses, scientists and the U.S. government. These diverse groups came together to help protect bald eagles under the authority of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Florida Panther: A 1989 census indicated that the Florida panther population had dropped to between 30 to 50 individuals. This decline was the result of habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Today, the species population is still below 100 individuals, but without Endangered Species Act protections the panther would likely be extinct. These protections include captive breeding, habitat protection, wildlife underpass construction and the introduction of Texas cougars to prevent inbreeding.
Gray Wolf: Gray wolves once ranged across the entire North American continent. However, as a result of poisoning and trapping by ranchers, farmers, and government agents, by the mid-20th century only a few hundred of the species remained in the entire lower 48 states. Today, thanks to Endangered Species Act protections, more than 2,500 wolves reside in Minnesota, roughly 500 wolves in Wisconsin and Michigan, and another 500 individuals in western states. The gray wolf’s success is a result of stimulated efforts such as public education about the species, habitat restoration, wolf introduction into various areas, and compensation of ranchers for livestock killed by wolves.
Grizzly Bear: Within the lower 48 states, grizzly bear populations have been reduced to a mere two percent of their former range due to a combination of excessive hunting, conversion of habitat to human uses and fragmentation of habitat caused by such things as extensive networks of logging roads. Grizzly bears were brought under federal management when they were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. At that time fewer than 250 bears occupied the Yellowstone area. Since then, the coordinated efforts of state and federal agencies, conservation organizations and private citizens have increased this population to more than 600 bears. In addition to the Yellowstone grizzlies, approximately 600 bears occupy habitat in the lower 48 states, including portions of Glacier National Park and adjacent areas in Montana and in northern Washington adjacent to the Canadian border.
Peregrine Falcon: A 1964 survey found that peregrine falcons did not inhabit a single cliff in the eastern United States or Canadian maritime provinces. By 1970, a mere 10 to 20 percent of the historical falcon population remained, due to egg and nestling collection, intentional shooting and DDT use. Endangered Species Act protections for the falcon included captive breeding, preventing human disturbances to nesting and protection and enhancement of critical breeding and wintering habitat. As a result, populations are thriving. The species was delisted in 1999, and today there are more than 1,400 breeding pairs of peregrines in North America.
Red-Cockaded Woodpecker: In the 1960s, a study predicted that the red-cockaded woodpecker would become extinct due to logging, deforestation and fire suppression. Fewer than 15,000 of these birds survive in about one percent of its former range. Thanks to the Act, restrictions were placed on habitat destruction and since 1995, more than 500,000 acres of private lands have been enrolled in conservation programs, leading the woodpecker toward recovery.
Endangered Species Day, which falls on the third Friday in May each year, is a day to celebrate endangered species success stories and learn about species still in danger. Learn what the National Wildlife Federation is doing to protect endangered species and how to support Endangered Species Day.
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More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 53 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.