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Quick Summary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA)
Cynthia Hodges, J.D., LL.M., M.A. (2010)

The Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) is a federal law that was enacted in 1973 to protect endangered and threatened species from becoming extinct (dying out). A species or subspecies is endangered if it is “in danger of extinction through out all or a significant portion of its range.”  A threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. Three different departments of the federal government administer ESA: the Department of Interior (endangered animals generally), the Department of Commerce (marine mammals), and the Department of Agriculture (plants).

ESA facilitates species recovery in several ways. It makes it illegal to import, export, take, possess, sell, or transport any endangered or threatened species. In addition, ESA provides that land necessary for the survival of the species should be designated as critical habitat. This includes land that is presently occupied by the listed species and land that is important for its continued and future existence. The prohibition against “taking” a listed species includes destruction of critical habitat.

ESA contains a number of exceptions. For example, a species may be exempted by the Endangered Species Committee (“God Squad”) or not covered if it is an experimental population (members of an endangered or threatened species that are released outside of the species’ current range to further conservation purposes). Other exceptions include incidental take by federal actions, national security issues, hardship cases, possession of a preexisting historical item, and certain actions by Alaskan Natives.

Provisions of the ESA are enforced through citizen suits, as well as through civil and criminal penalties. A criminal violation may result in imprisonment and a fine of up to $50,000. A civil violation of a major provision may result in a $25,000 fine (knowing violation) or a $12,000 fine. A violation of a minor provision, permit, or regulation may incur a $500 fine. Fish, wildlife and plants illegally taken, possessed, sold, or purchased may be confiscated (the most usual outcome). If there is a criminal conviction, then equipment and vehicles that were used to violate the ESA may also be confiscated. 

With certain exceptions, the ESA protects endangered and threatened species from extinction by prohibiting the importing, exporting, taking, possessing, selling, and transporting of such species. It also prohibits the destruction of their critical habitat. ESA provisions are enforced through the use of citizen suits, imprisonment, fines, and forfeiture.


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