The Endangered Species Act has been instrumental in the conservation of many bird species as well as other organisms. The ESA was enacted in 1973 by the U. S. Congress in a resounding fashion. The vote was 92 for and none against in the Senate and 390 for and 12 against in the House. Truly a bill with bipartisan support.
To be sure, business interests and some Republican officeholders fight to weaken or eliminate the ESA but it has withstood those challenges. Over 80% of Americans support the ESA. The ESA is the most comprehensive legislation for the protection and recovery of endangered species of any nation.
The purposes of the ESA are two-fold: to provide funding for federal agencies to prevent extinction and to develop plans to allow imperiled species to recover.
The federal agencies that administer ESA programs are the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. These agencies are responsible for the creation of the list of endangered species. They also create a list of threatened species that are declining and likely to be endangered in the near future.
It is illegal to collect or hunt any endangered species without a Federal Permit. The ESA provides for the protection of critical habitat for an endangered species. The ESA stipulates that a plan for the protection of critical habitat be developed within a year once a species is declared Endangered. The critical habitat may be provided by reclassification of existing federal land or the purchase of land. Private land is not subject to ESA claims.
Initially, decisions about which habitats on federal land to protect sought a balance between likely benefit to imperiled species against the economic value of development of that habitat. An amendment to the ESA in 1982 stipulates that the biological effects of protecting critical habitat be the only criterion in assessing the value of that habitat.
Let’s consider some of the happy effects of the ESA. Kirtland’s Warbler mainly nests in jack pine tracts in northern part of lower peninsula Michigan. In 1973, there were only 215 pairs. Now there are over 2,400 pairs and Kirtland’s Warbler was removed from the Endangered Species list in 2019. This recovery was enabled by habitat protection and capturing of Brown-headed Cowbirds that dupe the warblers into raising their young.
Bald Eagles went from 417 pairs in 1963 to over 11,000 pairs in 2007 when it was removed from the Endangered list. The banning of DDT in 1972 accounts for most of the recovery but habitat and nest protection enabled by the ESA certainly helped. Similarly, Peregrine Falcons recovered from the DDT tragedy to be removed from the Endangered List in 1999.
Other species that have been brought back from the brink include the San Clemente Indian Paintbrush (a plant), Black-footed Ferret and Virginian Big-eared Bat.
There are invertebrates on the Endangered Species list. Most of these tend to be larger and more charismatic. Butterflies, beetles, snails, freshwater mussels and spiders are prevalent. There are certainly many smaller invertebrates that are rare but we lack the expertise and time to document their endangered status. The habitat protection afforded by the ESA for more conspicuous species helps protect these tinier species too.
Alas, some species get removed from the Endangered Species list because the battle is lost. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a list of 23 species that are now extinct. This list includes 11 birds, eight mussels, two fish, a bat and a plant.
Do you remember walking on air in April of 2004 when a fuzzy video of a putative Ivory-billed Woodpecker from Arkansas went viral? After much field work, no solid evidence of this species, last seen in 1944, was found. The USFWS just declared it extinct along with Bachman’s Warbler of southeastern cypress forests and nine bird species from Hawaii and Guam.