The Endangered Species Act protects both animals and their habitats when they are in danger of extinction. Regulating habitats sometimes has significant effects on industries in the area, including agriculture and forestry.
Background: The early 1970s saw enactment of a number of major environmental laws that today form the backbone of U.S. federal efforts to safeguard the natural world.
Among these, in 1973, was the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under the ESA, the government regulates both the taking of plants and animals whose numbers are diminishing dangerously, and the permissible uses of their habitats.
Operation: Under the ESA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are able to designate an animal species as endangered or threatened. Endangered species are those in danger of extinction now; threatened species are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. Over time, species can be delisted if their populations recover. The FWS also regulates each species’ “critical habitat,” which may include not only areas where the animal is found, but other areas that are essential to its survival (e.g., movement corridors). Listing a species as endangered means that it is illegal for anyone to “take” those animals – meaning to hunt, harass or harm them.
When areas are designated as a critical habitat, the economic impact on agriculture, forestry and other industries can be considerable. Timber employment in some parts of the Pacific Northwest was significantly affected as efforts to preserve spotted owl populations there were implemented. Similarly, in the same region, efforts to safeguard salmon habitat in the Klamath River affected the availability of water for downstream agricultural irrigation and other uses.
In 2020, 640 U.S. species of animals and plants have been listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA and over 1,700 plants and animals have recovery plans in effect.
Administration and Enforcement: The ESA is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), an agency of the Department of the Interior and by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Statutory Authority: 16 U.S.C. 1531-1544.