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The Endangered Species Act Turns 50

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The Endangered Species Act (ESA) turns 50 this December, and we’re here to celebrate.

There’s much to celebrate, after all. According to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), “The US Endangered Species Act (ESA) is our nation’s most effective law to protect at-risk species from extinction, with a stellar success rate: 99% of species listed on it have avoided extinction.”

Moreover, it goes to show that implementing government programs geared toward protecting critical habitat, rebalancing ecosystems, and protecting wild fauna and flora really does work.

Let’s take a look at the ESA’s beginnings, its major wins, and some of the main challenges it poses to modern development.

Birth of the ESA

The Endangered Species Act was passed with bipartisan support in 1973 as a way to help protect plants and animals against habitat loss, pesticides, incidental take, and other hazards brought on by humans. It allows organizations and individuals to petition on behalf of the well-being of specific species, which then undergo scientific review to determine their protection status.

If the species receives protection via a listing on the endangered species list, then it benefits from a number of requirements:

  • Ecosystem and habitat conservation

  • Development of a recovery plan specific to it

  • Federal agency cooperation with tribal, state, and local agencies to ensure protection for the foreseeable future

Together, stakeholders must do all they can to promote species conservation, whether we’re talking about migratory birds in the Americas, top predators, marine mammals, or anything else.

So, which American federal agencies oversee the protection of endangered and threatened species and the implementation of recovery plans? Glad you asked.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) “share responsibility for implementing the ESA,” explains the NOAA. “NOAA Fisheries is responsible for most marine and anadromous species. U.S. FWS is responsible for terrestrial and freshwater species. They are also responsible for several marine mammal species like walrus, sea otters, manatees, and polar bears.”

The two have joint custody of other marine species. These include sea turtles – whose nest counts among green turtle populations have seen an incredible comeback – as well as Gulf Sturgeon and Atlantic Salmon.

The federal government isn’t the only entity at work protecting endangered and threatened species. States from California to Maine have their own conservation plans in place to protect such species and their specific habitats alike.

ESA: Hundreds of Species Saved

The ESA wasted no time in saving species from the danger of extinction after its creation. According to estimates from the National Institutes of Health, “the Endangered Species Act has prevented the extinction of roughly 291 species since passage in 1973.”

They add that “To date, only four species have been confirmed extinct with another 22 possibly extinct following protection.” Furthermore, 71 species are extinct/possibly extinct but were last seen before protection, “meaning the Act’s protections never had the opportunity to save these species” and therefore does not count toward its 99% winning streak.

On a positive note, the ESA has seen 39 fully recovered species, 23 of which were in the last decade (as of the 2019 writing of this article).

“In 2016,” says the WWF, “more listed species were found to be partially or completely recovered than in any previous year since the ESA became law.”

Honorable mentions include bald eagles, which have rebounded incredibly since the implementation of habitat protection, captive breeding programs, reintroduction to the wild, and firm law enforcement measures. Today, the bald eagle is more than ever a symbol of America’s strength and resilience.

Another worthy highlight is the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, which keeps us on our toes with its constant relisting. (But hey, it’s still with us, so we’ll cut a slice of cake for it too.)

And green turtles, mentioned above, have shown a jaw-dropping rebound rate – from “4,000 nests in the 1980s to more than 230,000 in the 2010s,” according to NOAA Fisheries. That’s a 5,750% increase – woohoo!

The ESA and Development

Turning 50 and saving species left and right are certainly causes for celebration. However, there will be challenges, too.

Initiatives and investments from the Biden-Harris administration – including the America the Beautiful initiative, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act, and other key investments – will help ensure we can continue to conserve species and their habitats, build new and sustained partnerships, and create a framework to guide our efforts,” the U.S. Department of the Interior says. “This work will require not just an all-of-government approach, but a continued collaborative effort with state, local and Tribal governments, private landowners, and conservation organizations.”

As this quote makes apparent, though, there are a lot of regulations to watch out for. If the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2023 passes, it will only add more.

That means for each proposed action a federal or private body seeks to take, you must account for endangered plants and animals to protect the continued existence of biodiversity. These considerations include adverse modifications to the species’ habitat.

At face value, that’s an obvious obligation to the planet and every organism living upon it. It’s also the best way to preserve integral wild areas for future recreation, such as hunting, fishing, and hiking.

However, this can also prove a barrier to a developer’s workflow. Therefore, innovation is key to continuing the work of the ESA while maintaining the steady development required to meet affordable housing and clean energy needs in the coming decades.

The ESA and You

Want to learn more about at-risk plants and animals? Endangered Species Day is celebrated every year on the third Friday in May and is dedicated to helping people learn more about listed species and how they can take action to help them.

Using software such as Transect allows you to see the list of endangered species and their designated critical habitats on your site. Specific areas may see more non-federal protections for species that can complicate the permitting and regulatory requirements if developing or interacting with the land in a way that could impact said species. Tools like this allow us to continue the work of the ESA as traditionally done in the environmental consultation process while continuing to develop our world.

Curious to know if there is an endangered species near you? Run a Transect report to find out!

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