Keeping the Endangered Species Act Strong


For more than 35 years, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has served as the nation's safety net for imperiled fish, wildlife and plant species.

Thanks to the ESA, we have been able to stave off hundreds of extinctions of species and have protected millions of acres of fish and wildlife habitat from threats such as mining, logging and real estate development.

The lives of our children and grandchildren will be richer thanks to this remarkable commitment to protect their rightful inheritance. Protecting the ESA from attacks in the political process and improving how the law is implemented on the ground have always been priorities of the National Wildlife Federation.
The Fight is Not Over

Despite the ESA's successes, much additional work remains to prevent widespread human-caused extinctions and the loss and degradation of the natural ecosystems that support both people and wildlife. The 1,400 or so species to which we have afforded ESA protection represent just a small fraction of those at risk of extinction. Most of the thousands of imperiled species in the U.S. awaiting ESA protections lack any alternate safety net of protection and remain highly vulnerable to extinction. More importantly, ecosystems in the U.S. and around the globe are greatly imperiled due to the combined impacts of global warming and more direct forms of habitat destruction and degradation such as road-building, housing development, and the spread of invasive species. Thus, many of the species that we have rescued with the ESA, as well as many others, easily could be lost to extinction in the coming decades if we fail to take aggressive action.

Key Actions to Rescue Threatened Species and Ecosystems

To prevent a tragic loss of the nation's biological wealth, the National Wildlife Federation and its conservation partners are working to improve implementation of the Endangered Species Act. We also are working to find better ways to integrate the Act into broader national and global strategies for rescuing threatened species and ecosystems. To succeed, this broader conservation framework must focus both on reducing the carbon pollution that is causing global warming and ocean acidification, and on safeguarding species and ecosystems from carbon pollution already committed to the atmosphere and oceans. The ESA will play an important role in preparing for and responding to the combined impacts of global warming, ocean acidification and traditional stressors such as habitat destruction and fragmentation and spreading of invasive species.

The fate of wildlife and ecosystems hinges on the willingness and ability of policymakers and natural resource managers to confront global warming-related threats. Natural resource managers will need to become much more conversant in integrating climate models and other considerations of climate change into Endangered Species Act implementation, and policymakers will need to provide direction and funding to facilitate this integration. To maximize the chances that the Act will meet its conservation goals, agencies implementing the law must confront global warming head-on.

United States Capitol

Maintaining the Safety Net of Protections
In exploring ways to improve ESA implementation, it is important to identify what aspects of the law have worked well and should be strengthened. What is remarkable about the ESA is that, even during those years where the political officials charged with implementing the law have been hostile to wildlife conservation, the ESA nonetheless has continued protecting habitat, fostering active management and recovery efforts, and otherwise bringing public attention, effort and funding to stewardship of the natural world. The Act has continued to function in all kinds of political environments in large measure due to its clear mandates for protective measures and its directive that officials use the best available science in applying those measures. Of equal importance, the Act's citizen enforcement mechanism has enabled conservation groups to ensure compliance with the law's strong mandates. A key goal of wildlife conservationists must be to retain these basic regulatory "safety net" features.

Establishing Recovery Targets

In addition to promoting and helping to enforce the "safety net" features of the ESA, we can improve the odds for imperiled wildlife by encouraging agencies, companies and individuals to go beyond just minimizing harm to wildlife and to participate in recovery and restoration projects. As a first step, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, the two agencies charged with leading ESA implementation, must promptly prepare recovery plans establishing quantitative targets for the population numbers that threatened and endangered species must achieve in the wild in order to be viable in the long term. These plans also must include targets for the amount, configuration and quality of habitat that must be conserved in order to sustain the species. Using these recovery plan targets, we can work with a wide array of partners to boost species population numbers and restore key habitats.

Providing Incentives to Private Landowners

Among the key steps that can be taken to make the ESA more effective would be to increase funding and technical assistance to private landowners who want to contribute to species recovery on their properties. Conservation incentives can be provided through existing programs, such as the Farm Bill's Conservation Reserve Program, or by reducing capital gains and estate taxes when properties or conservation easements are sold to buyers planning to protect habitat on the land, or by allowing income tax credits for landowners' expenditures that are part of specified species conservation programs.

A variation on this last recommendation was accepted by the 110th Congress in the most recent Farm Bill. With the support of a diverse group of conservation NGOs (including the National Wildlife Federation) and landowner interests, Congress provided a tax deduction for farmers who agree to carry out measures that implement recovery plans for listed species. This was an important breakthrough on ESA policy, which had not been updated by Congress since 1988 due to a lack of consensus among key interest groups.

Related Resources

  • Conserving Endangered Species in an Era of Global Warming by John Kostyack and Dan Rohlf (pdf) - While the Endangered Species Act is lauded as one of the country's most powerful tools of environmental protection, the statute may not be strong enough to protect wildlife and habitat in the face of global warming. In this article, John Kostyack and Dan Rohlf argue that legislative and administrative changes will be needed if the Endangered Species Act is going to make a real difference in protecting biodiversity from the dangers of climate change. They describe the effects that climate change will have on wildlife and habitat, and relay a list of potential management responses to these effects. They then discuss implementation challenges that climate change will bring, such as difficulties in designating critical habitat for wildlife moving due to warming. Finally, the authors conclude with some policy recommendations, including how to tackle climate change legislation, update the Act, and institute adaptive management practices.

Get Our E-Newsletter 
Join NWF and receive a subscription to National Wildlife Magazine!
Subscribe to Ranger Rick and Ranger Rick Jr. Today!