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Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1973 and was reauthorized in 1988. The purpose of the ESA is to recover species around the world that are in danger of human-caused extinction. Through the creation of a list of endangered animals and plants (the Endangered Species List), the act seeks to provide a means of conserving those species and their ecosystems.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), a part of the Department of Interior, is the federal agency responsible for listing (or reclassifying or delisting) endangered and threatened species on the Endangered Species List. The decision to list a species is based solely on scientific factors. Once a species is placed on the list, the USFWS is required to develop a plan for its recovery. The USFWS also makes sure that any actions by the U.S. government or citizens do not further harm the listed species. However, the ESA explicitly requires the balancing of species protection with economic development.

Species are placed on the list in one of two categories:

  • Endangered: A species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant part of its range.
  • Threatened: A species that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.

The ESA outlaws the buying, selling, transporting, importing, or exporting of any listed species. Most important, the act bans the taking of any listed species within the United States and its territorial seas. "Taking" is defined as harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, cutting, trapping, killing, removing, capturing, or collecting. The taking of listed species is prohibited on both private and public lands.

Violators of the ESA are subject to heavy fines. Individuals can face up to $100,000 in fines and up to one year's imprisonment. Organizations found in violation of the act may be fined up to $200,000.

As of the beginning of 1998, there were 1,126 species on the Endangered Species List. This total included 458 animals and 668 plants. The majority of species on the list—896—were placed in the Endangered category.

There has been much criticism of the ESA since its passage. Opponents of the act believe it prohibits human activity and progress. They believe it places the rights of humans behind those of other species. The debate over these supposed aspects of the ESA will likely continue.

What is not debatable, however, is the fact that the ESA has worked to save endangered species. Of the 128 U.S. species that were on the Endangered Species List when the ESA was passed in 1973, almost 60 percent have recovered, are improving, or are in stable condition.

Source: Endangered Species, U·X·L. 2003.

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