Endangered Species Act (ESA)

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Brief 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.


U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
ESA Basics
40 Years of Conserving Endangered Species

When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, it recognized that our rich natural heritage is of “esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people.” It further expressed concern that many of our nation’s native plants and animals were in danger of becoming extinct.

The purpose of the ESA is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. The Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) administer the ESA. The FWS has primary responsibility for terrestrial and freshwater organisms, while the responsibilities of NMFS are mainly marine wildlife such as whales and anadromous fish such as salmon.

Under the ESA, species may be listed as either endangered or threatened. “Endangered” means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. All species of plants and animals, except pest insects, are eligible for listing as endangered or threatened. For the purposes of the ESA, Congress defined species to include subspecies, varieties, and, for vertebrates, distinct population segments.

As of January 2013, the FWS has listed 2,054 species worldwide as endangered or threatened, of which 1,436 occur in the United States.

To read more of this bulletin commemorating the 40th Anniversary, go to http://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/ESA_basics.pdf

Related articles

Strength in Numbers: Setting Quantitative Criteria for Listing Species under the Endangered Species Act , Kalyani Robbins, 27 UCLA J. Envtl. L. & Pol'y 1 (2009).

Is "Recovered" Really Recovered? "Recovered" Species under the Endangered Species Act (Adopted from 39 Cumberland Law Review 387- 436 (2009) by permission), James L. Noles, Jr., 39 Cumb. L. Rev. 387 (2008-2009).

Can We Stand for It? Amending the Endangered Species Act with an Animal-Suit Provision , Katherine A. Burke, 75 U. Colo. L. Rev. 633 (2004).

Protecting the Wildlife Trust: A Reinterpretation of Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act , Mary Christina Wood, 34 Envtl. L. 605 (Spring, 2004).

Related cases

Table of Cases Dealing with the ESA/Endangered Species



Related laws

Complete U.S. Endangered Species Act  (16 USC 1531 - 1544)

Endangered Species Regulations - List of threatened and endangered species

Related Links

U.S. Fish & Wildlife site  [has link to full listing of endangered species]: http://www.fws.gov/endangered/index.html

Comprehensive information about endangered species in the America's: NatureServe


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