Key U.S. Environmental Law Helps Save Species from Extinction

By Bridget Hunter
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – What do 1,132 species of animals have in common? Two things, actually: they are hovering on the brink of extinction, and they are under the protection of the U.S. government.

Wildlife conservation has a long history in the United States, and the United States also is at the forefront of international efforts to protect wildlife. The federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is the legal foundation for these activities.

Human activities have accelerated the Earth’s natural extinction rate to approximately 1,000 times what it would be without human interference, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with implementing the act.

Many scientists credit the ESA with preventing the extinctions of the brown pelican, Aleutian Canada goose, peregrine falcon, bald eagle and the peninsular bighorn sheep. Populations of all but the latter two have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the list of species protected by the act. Other species, such as the masked bobwhite quail and the gray wolf, have been re-established in the wild thanks to ESA protections.

The ESA also benefits humans. Despite concerns that the law would cause economic hardship, the creation and restoration of healthy ecosystems is generating economic benefits, particularly from tourism and recreational spending, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Healthy ecosystems – clean air, pure water, reduced land erosion - also pay dividends in improved human health.


In the late 19th century, when U.S. expansion reached its westward limit, Americans began to recognize environmental change and began to protect their precious natural resources.

The conservation movement, which numbered President Theodore Roosevelt among its supporters, pushed private and public initiatives to protect endangered species.

The American Bison Society, founded in 1905, was one of the United States’ first environmental organizations. It initiated a successful effort to protect and restore the American bison population, then close to extinction. (See related article.)

The society also helped trigger a broader environmental movement that resulted in creation of the U.S. National Park System. (See related article.)

Passage of the Lacey Act in 1900 was prompted by growing concern about interstate profiteering in illegally taken game. The passenger pigeon was well on its way to being hunted into oblivion, and populations of other bird species also were declining. The act was too late to save the passenger pigeon – the last known representative of the species died in 1914 – but it benefited many other species, especially wild birds.

The plight of another bird, the whooping crane, prompted the 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act. That law directed the Department of the Interior to create a list of endangered U.S. wildlife and allocated up to $15 million each year to buy and preserve their habitats. Due to growing public pressure to save whales, the act was revised in 1969 to allow listing of foreign species and prohibit imports of products made from those species.

A subsequent legal wrangle between the departments of Interior and Defense over the U.S. Navy’s use of sperm-whale oil in submarines convinced Interior officials and, ultimately, Congress that a stronger law was needed.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 broadened the federal protections for endangered animals and plants and extended aid to state governments for wildlife protection. The act seeks to conserve the ecosystems on which endangered species and threatened species depend, establish a program to conserve endangered and threatened species and carry out international conventions intended to protect endangered species.


The ESA mandates that the United States “encourage foreign countries to provide for the conservation of fish, wildlife and plants, including listed species; enter into bilateral or multilateral agreements for the purpose, encourage and assist foreign persons who take fish, wildlife and plants for import to the U.S. for commercial or other purposes to develop and carry out conservation procedures.” It also authorizes U.S. aid to train personnel from other nations on wildlife conservation, for research and law enforcement, and for law enforcement investigations and research abroad.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), one of the earliest international agreements addressing the plight of endangered species, was adopted in 1973 in Washington. The United States was among the 21 original signatories. Currently, 171 nations are parties to CITES.

Unlike the ESA, which protects species by addressing a variety of threats to their survival, CITES protects at-risk species primarily through restrictions on commerce. The CITES system for controlling international trade in species in danger of becoming extinct relies on adoption and enforcement of export and import restrictions by signatory nations.

CITES allows for trade in listed species if such trade is not detrimental to a species’ survival. In contrast, the ESA permits trade in foreign endangered species only if that trade enhances the survival of the species in its native country. Overall, restrictions in the Endangered Species Act are broader and somewhat stricter than CITES requirements.

With CITES, effective enforcement is a key element of success. The United States has entered into international partnerships designed to block illegal wildlife trade. 

The Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT), a U.S. initiative launched in September 2005, describes itself as “a unique voluntary public-private coalition of like-minded governments and organizations that share a common purpose.”

Its members, which include Canada, the United States, India, the United Kingdom, Australia and 14 conservation and industry organizations, seek to focus attention and resources on ending illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products. (See related article.)

The ASEAN Wildlife Law Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN), launched December 2005 with funding from the U.S. government, is an integrated network of law enforcement agencies. Its membership is open to officials from CITES authorities, customs, the police, prosecutors, specialized governmental wildlife-law enforcement organizations and other relevant agencies.

More information about CAWT is available on the coalition’s Web site. Additional information on ASEAN-WEN is available on the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia.

For more information about U.S. policies, see Environment.