By Sharon Reily, Reference Department
You may have recently read distressing headlines predicting mass extinctions of species of animals and plants. Most alarming is the U.N.’s new report on biodiversity and ecosystems asserting that up to 1 million species of plants and animals are now threatened with extinction, some within decades, including 40% of all amphibians, 33% of marine mammals, and another 33% of shark, shark relatives and reef-forming corals. Since May is Endangered Species Month, this is a good time to explore where information on endangered species comes from. Who collects and analyzes the data? Who decides which plants and animals make it onto the endangered list? What is the processing for getting on the list? Once an animal is added to the list, who determines what steps are required to protect it? Which animals are currently considered to be in the most danger, and which threatened animals are making a comeback?
The Endangered Species Act
In the 1960s, due to hunting, habitat loss and use of the toxic pesticide DDT, the bald eagle had suffered a drastic decrease in population that left only 417 breeding pairs accounted for. In 1966, public outcry over the decline of our national bird and other animals motivated Congress to pass the Endangered Species Preservation Act. The Act eventually evolved into The Endangered Species Act (ESA), which was signed into law in 1973 by President Richard Nixon. The bald eagle was one of the first animals protected by the ESA.
The ESA is our nation’s most powerful tool for protecting wildlife. Its purpose is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. The ESA is administered by the Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (responsible for terrestrial and freshwater organisms) and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service (responsible for marine wildlife such as whales and also fish like the salmon that live in the sea and migrate to fresh water to breed).
Under the ESA, a species can be listed as “endangered” or “threatened.” An “endangered” species is in danger of extinction while a “threatened” species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. All species of plants and animals, except for pest insects, are eligible to be listed in both categories. Currently, 1471 animals and 947 plants species are on the ESA’s endangered list.
The ESA lists species as endangered or threatened based on five factors:
- Damage or destruction to their habitat
- Overutilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes
- Disease or predation
- Inadequacy of existing protection
- Other natural or manmade factors that effect a species’ continued existence
Numerous other organizations monitor and report on endangered species, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Center for Biological Diversity. They don’t have the regulatory powers of the ESA, but they do provide valuable information used by the ESA and other conservationists.
Animals and plants can be added to the endangered list in one of two ways. Either biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service add candidates based on the findings of their own assessments, or they respond to a public petition. Under the act, anyone can submit a written petition, and must be notified within 90 days whether the request warrants further research, which must be completed within a year. Thirty days after a listing is added, it becomes effective.
Once a species is on the list as either endangered or threatened, the ESA protects it and its habitat by prohibiting interstate or international trade and “take” of the listed animal. Take means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect” a member of the species. Listed plants are not protected from take, although it is illegal to collect or harm them on Federal land. They’re also protected from commercial trade.
The Endangered Species
The ESA and other conservation organizations haven’t been able to save every species. Three species of birds went extinct in 2018 – two songbirds from Brazil (the Cryptic Treehunter and the Alagoas Foliage-gleaner) and the Po’ouli from Hawaii.
Nearing extinction are the vaquitas (a small dolphin-like porpoise), the northern white rhino, and the red wolf. Only 30 vaquitas remain in the world. The last male northern white rhino died at a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya last March, and only two females are left. In the U.S., only 40 endangered red wolves remain in the wild and they could become extinct in the next 8 years.
Other endangered species are well known:
- Amur Leopard
- Cross River Gorillas and Mountain Gorillas
- Hawksbill and the Leatherback Sea Turtles
- Sumatran Orangutan
- Sumatran Elephant
- Saola (an antelope-like animal discovered in Vietnam in 1992)
- Black Rhino, Javan Rhino and Sumatran Rhino
- Pangolin (Scaly Anteater)
In April the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it is considering adding giraffes to its endangered list and will begin an in-depth review that can take several years.
But there is also encouraging news. While only 39 species have been declared fully recovered in the ESA’s 46-year history, scientists estimate at least 300 species would have been lost to extinction without the law. According to the National Resources Defense Council, 99 percent of the species granted protection under the act have managed to survive until today.
Some of the success stories include:
- Bald Eagles: recovered from less than 500 breeding pairs to nearly 70,000 birds today.
- Humpback Whales: increased in such numbers that in most habitats, they’ve been delisted.
- Grizzly Bears: numbers are still low, but they’re beginning to rebound thanks to aggressive conservation efforts.
- Florida Manatees: population has increased to the point that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2017 that the mammals had been downlisted from Endangered to Threatened on the list.
- California Condors: there are now over 400 birds, up from only 23 in 1982.
- Grey Wolves: starting to make a comeback.
- Whooping Cranes: still endangered with only 800 living today, but the numbers were once in the 20s.
- Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep: after being added to the list, the bighorn has come back from the brink of extinction. Its population is slowly on the rise, although it is still endangered.
In addition, the American peregrine falcon, Eggert’s sunflower, and the red kangaroo have recovered enough to be delisted, meaning they’re no longer in danger.
For more details on specific species and to find out how you might be able to help or get involved, check out the websites of these conservation organizations:
- Center for Biological Diversity: https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/
- National Audubon Society: https://www.audubon.org
- The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN): https://www.iucn.org/
- The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC): https://www.nrdc.org
- The Sierra Club: https://www.sierraclub.org
- World Wildlife Fund (WWF): https://www.worldwildlife.org
If you’d like to learn more about the ESA and endangered species, see the attached sampling of books available at WCPL.
- ESA fact sheet. [120KB]
FOR FURTHER READING:
- Corwin, Jeff. 100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth’s Most Endangered Species. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2010. (333.95416 COR)
- Glavin, Terry. The Sixth Extinction: Journey Among the Lost and Left Behind. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press, 2007. (333.9522 GLA)
- Goodall, Jane, Thane Maynard, and Gail Hudson. Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009. (591.68 GOO)
- Durrell, Gerald. Ark on the Move. New York, NY: Coward-McCann, 1983. (591.969 DUR)
- McGavin, George. Endangered. London: Cassell Illustrated, 2006. (578.68 MACG)
- Neme, Laurel Abrams, and Richard Leakey. Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species. New York, NY: Scribner, 2009. (363.2598 NEM)
- Sartore, Joel. Rare: Portraits of Americas Endangered Species. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2010. (578.680973 SAR)
- Weidensaul, Scott. The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species. New York: North Point Press, 2003. (591.68 WEI)
- Yeh, Jennifer J. Endangered Species: Must They Disappear? Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005. (591.68 YEH)