The Endangered Species Act turned 50 in December 2023, marking a half-century of protecting vulnerable species. The law is one of the foundational environmental laws of the U.S. In 1973, the U.S. House and Senate passed the act with majorities in both chambers.
“For 50 years, the Endangered Species Act has been our safety net for fish, plants, and wildlife on the brink of extinction,” said Bob Stanton, former U.S. National Park Service director. “As we look to the next 50 years, we owe it to future generations to fully fund and strengthen the law that protects our nation’s wildlife heritage.”
The Importance of Protecting Species
One of the environmental challenges facing the world is the loss of diversity. In the U.S., every 30 seconds, a football field worth of natural land disappears for development, such as roads and pipelines, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. The human footprint in the U.S. increased by over 24 million acres from 2001 to 2017, with the South and Midwest experiencing the most significant losses of natural areas. Development increased to cover 47 percent and 59 percent of wild land, respectively. If the trend continues, natural lands the size of South Dakota will be lost in the continental U.S. by 2050.
A report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) paints a bleak global picture. Around one million animal and plant species face the threat of extinction.
Many could face extinction within decades, more than ever before in history. Native species in most land-based habits decreased by at least 20 percent. Most of the loss occurred since 1900. Over 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, over a third of all marine mammals, and about 10 percent of insects could face extinction.
“We must continue to work to protect imperiled wildlife and plants. Habitat destruction and climate change are depriving countless species of the very places they need to survive, and nearly a million species around the world face the threat of extinction,” Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous said in a statement.
“This year, as we celebrate 50 years of the Endangered Species Act, we know its role in maintaining biodiversity is more important now than ever, especially as we face a worsening climate crisis and mass extinction,” said House Natural Resources Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva.
Notable Successes of the Endangered Species Act
The ESA saved 99 percent of all species listed for protection from extinction. Around 90 percent of the species on the endangered species list are on schedule to meet the timetables in their recovery plans.
One species saved is the bald eagle, the US national symbol. By the mid-1900s, the bald eagle faced the threat of extinction in most of its range. The degradation and destruction of bald eagle habitat had a significant impact. The contamination of their food source, mainly from the insecticide Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), also played a role. The ESA provided habitat protection, and the federal government banned DDT. In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list.
The whooping crane is another ESA success story. Endemic to North America, it is the continent’s tallest bird. Listed as endangered in the 1970s, the whooping crane has steadily recovered. There were 1,400 in the late 1800s, but in 1941, its population was 21, and there are 500 today.
The Endangered Species Act is the cornerstone of preserving biological diversity in a climate-changed world.