The Endangered Species Act in Context


The Endangered Species Act was passed almost unanimously by Congress in 1973 and signed into law by then-President Richard Nixon. It is widely regarded as one of the world’s strongest and most effective wildlife conservation laws but is also often embroiled in debates regarding private property rights, the extent and role of the federal government, and economic issues.

The purposes of the Endangered Species Act are "to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species andthreatened species, and to take such steps as may be appropriate to achieve" these goals. Under the Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to "take" an endangered or threatened species from its habitat or otherwise threaten its survival, although the Act does allow for exemptions to the rule. The Endangered Species Act is administered by two federal agencies: the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Important Sections of the Endangered Species Act

-Section 3: Defines the terms endangered and threatened, fish and wildlife, critical habitat and species. Also includes a broad definition of the term “take” as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.”

-Section 4: Lists the criteria for a species to be added to the endangered or threatened list. A species should be considered for listing based on the following factors:
(A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range;
(B) Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;
(C) Disease or predation;
(D) The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or
(E) Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.
  Under this section of the Act, the FWS or NOAA may list a species, or an individual or organization may petition to have a certain species listed. This section also emphasizes the importance of critical habitat in supporting endangered species, as habitat loss is a major cause of declining species’ populations. An amendment to this section in 1978 allowed for economic considerations in determining critical habitat of an endangered species. Additionally, this segment lays out the requirements for Endangered Species Recovery Plans, which requires federal agencies to develop strategies to recover endangered species.

-Section 7: Requires that all federal agencies comply with the Act and that they ensure that federal funds are not used to support projects which may harm endangered or threatened species. Also provides the procedure that a federal agency must follow in order to be exempted from the Act. Federal agencies that wish to implement a project that may harm an endangered species must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine how an endangered species will be harmed by the action and if the harm can be avoided or minimized. If it is determined that the harm is necessary and unavoidable, the project must be approved by the Endangered Species Committee, which is known as the "God Squad," and must receive a majority vote in order to be approved.

-Section 10: Details the procedures that an individual or organization must follow to be exempted from the Act. This section was amended in 1982 to provide a route through which citizens could apply to legally "take" an endangered species. Private citizens who wish to take actions that may harm an endangered species must develop and submit a Habitat Conservation Plan that details the impacts on the endangered species, why this action is necessary, and how the individual will minimize and mitigate the effects of the action on the endangered species. If the Habitat Conservation Plan is accepted, the individual is granted an Incidental Take Permit, which allows for the taking of a specified number of individuals in the endangered species.


The Endangered Species Act represents different things to different groups of individuals. To federal bureaucracies like the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Act is the guidelines that it follows to carry out its role in wildlife conservation. For landowners, farmers and hunters who are aggrieved by the presence or interference of endangered species, the Act makes it even more difficult for them to manage the species on their own or do with their land what they please. To proponents of wildlife conservation, the Act is legislation that they can cling to and draw strength from to further their goals of wise wildlife management. For endangered species such as the Grey Wolf, the Act may be the only reason that they exist. The Endangered Species Act does cross social worlds and mean something different to each party involved, which highlights the importance of perspective and context.

The Endangered Species Act can be viewed in its entirety here.