The Endangered Species Act: Critical Lifeline

The Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed into law in 1973, is a critical lifeline to save birds from extinction. This landmark conservation law has played a role in the comeback of species from Bald Eagle to Brown Pelican. Unfortunately, the ESA is now itself under threat.

Peregrine Falcon, Teri Virbickis/Shutterstock

How Birds Benefit from ESA Listing

Species that are in danger of extinction, or that may become so, can be considered for listing under the ESA. Once a species is listed, it receives certain mandatory protections to aid its recovery.

“Critical Habitat” designations with the species’ listing further protect endangered birds by safeguarding areas deemed essential for a species’ survival and recovery. To achieve recovery, areas must sometimes be designated as Critical Habitat even though they are not currently occupied by the species, allowing for future population increases and range expansion.

Without designation of Critical Habitat, some species may be restricted to tiny populations and destined to remain on the endangered species list forever.

Brown Pelican, Greg Homel

Track Record of Success

Seventy-eight percent of the birds listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA have populations that are now stable, increasing, or have recovered enough to be delisted, according to a report published in July 2016 by ABC. The Endangered Species Act: A Record of Success analyzed population trends and recovery success for all U.S. listed birds, including those in the Hawaiian Islands and U.S. territories.  Recorded presentations about the report are available here.

Our 2006 report, “American Birds: An Endangered Species Act Success Story,” found that of the 43 bird species listed under the ESA that breed in the continental United States, 63 percent had increasing or stable populations. Populations of several species had grown more than tenfold since being listed.

A few of the birds that have benefited from the ESA are Wood Stork, Bald Eagle, and Interior Least Tern.

Less than a quarter of species listed under the ESA are declining in population, and many of these were added to the list relatively recently. In fact, species that have increased since listing have been on the endangered list an average of 10 years longer than those that have decreased, showing that given time, conservation efforts can recover populations.

Greater Prairie-Chicken, Noppadol Paothong

ESA Under Attack

For the past two decades, the Endangered Species Act has been the focus of attacks from interest groups bent on relaxing species protections to allow increased development.

Today, the Act is under threat as never before. In 2014, Congress passed a rider to prevent an ESA listing of sage grouse, including two populations that each number fewer than 5,000 birds.

In 2015, as part of the Keystone XL Pipeline bill, an amendment was offered in the Senate to strip ESA protection from the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. More species-specific listing riders and bills that interfere with the law itself are expected this session of Congress.

We will continue to monitor these legislative maneuvers to help keep a strong ESA intact.

Lesser Prairie-Chickens, Noppadol Paothong

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