The people of the United States have one of the world's most powerful and successful legal tools for protecting species at risk of extinction: the Endangered Species Act, or ESA. Passed by Congress in 1973 on the heels of a precursor law from 1967, the Act is the best and possibly the last chance Americans have of securing a future for diverse native wildlife and the natural environments that wildlife depends on. The Act’s vital citizen-suit and critical-habitat provisions give it its “teeth”: the former allows public-interest groups and individuals to petition and sue the government to make sure the Act protects species as it was intended to, while the latter provides a crucial tool through direct legal protection of lands or waters that species need to survive and recover.
Although the Act functions by protecting individual species or subspecies on a case-by-case basis — in recent years, almost exclusively in response to citizen suits — at its best, the Act provides landscape-level protection for complements of species and the ecosystems in which those species play integral roles. To date, the Act has helped the American bald eagle, black-footed ferret, gray whale, peregrine falcon and spotted owl, among hundreds of others whose status has improved dramatically under its protection.
More than 1,000 species are listed as endangered or threatened in the United States, but there remain almost 200 candidate species languishing in the Act’s bureaucratic “waiting room” in urgent need of protection.
The Act’s rigorous, science-based approach to species conservation has resulted in unparalleled, clearly demonstrable gains for animals and plants at risk of extinction across the country. Fueled by citizen suits that compel sluggish government agencies to uphold the law and protect species — with the Center leading the country in the number of species protected, through petitions, lawsuits, and negotiation — the Act is the country’s number-one tool for conserving biodiversity. The Center has documented a number of its successes in U.S. regions such as the Northeast and with key species on the state level and nationwide and continues to work on systematic assessments of the Act’s performance.
Meanwhile, the Act comes under periodically heavy fire from industry-backed interests in Washington, where, according to the ebb and flow of lobbying influence in Congress and the White House, politicians are pressured to de-authorize or substantially weaken the Act. This occurs most often in obscure, backdoor ways driven by vested interests, since the Act enjoys tremendous and widespread popular support and is therefore difficult to attack directly.
The Center has played a central role over the years in fending off these insidious assaults, often by supplying policymakers with the scientific data they need to effectively defend the Act from ill-informed detractors. In 2011, we reached a historic agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service compelling the agency to move forward on decisions to protect an astounding 757 imperiled species toward protection under the Act.
And our close watchdogging of the agency chiefly responsible for endangered species protection, the Fish and Wildlife Service, has brought official corruption to light and, by exposing bureaucratic wrongdoing, catalyzed a large-scale re-evaluation of unsound decisions that would hurt species.