Origins of the Endangered Species Act
Richard M. Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973,
it has not only been called one of the most important pieces of
environmental legislation, but also one of the most controversial.
From the snail darter controversy in the 1970s to the current debate
surrounding the listing of the polar bear, the Endangered Species Act
has come under fire sfrom every direction. Is the ESA biologically
unsound? Does the Act encroach on private property rights? Are
science and politics too close for comfort? It remains to be seen
what will happen when the Act comes up for reauthorization, but many valuable
lessons can be learned from case studies and previous legislation.
Species Act, intended to protect species and “the ecosystems upon
which they depend,” arose during an era of social and political
engagement and environmental activism. Congress passed legislation
first in 1966 to protect vertebrates and expanded its scope in 1969.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon called for a comprehensive action
plan, and on December 28, 1972, he signed the Act into law. The Act
currently protects plants and invertebrates, as well as vertebrates.
It does not protect fungi.
Importance of Biodiversity
The term "biodiversity" refers to the variety of life forms and ecosystems
present on the Earth, as well as to the variability of genetic
makeup. It also refers to interactions among these life forms. The
basic value of biodiversity was identified by the National Research
Council: "The Earth's non-human biota are crucial to humans'
long-term survival. We depend on the photosynthetic capability of
green plants for the oxygen that we breathe for virtually all our
food and energy requirements." Biodiversity is also important for
other reasons, among them ecological, economic and cultural. In
addition to contributing to the world's carbon and oxygen cycles,
ecologically, biodiversity also contributes to the water cycle, the
nitrogen cycle and the energy cycle. Each one is crucial for life to
persist, moderating the Earth's temperature and maintaining a
hospitable climate, and providing us with food, clean water and
breathable air. Biodiversity also has immense economic value, from
food and drink to medicine and industrial materials. Conservation
biologists also argue for the intrinsic value of biodiversity. Humans, the say, are a part of nature. In his seminal work,
A Sand Country Almanac (1949),
Aldo Leopold argues,
We know now what was unknown to
all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only
fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution...
Above all we should, in the century since Darwin, have come to know
that man, while now captain of the adventuring ship, is hardly the
sole object of its quest, and that prior assumptions to this effect
arose from the simple necessity of whistling in the dark.
Carson, author of Silent Spring (1962), argues for the
existence of a species merely because of its very presence in the
long history of evolution when she asks, "Can any civilization wage
relentless war on life without destroying itself and without losing
the right to be called civilized?"
The processes of endangerment, recovery and extinction
regardless of population size or how fast their population is
growing, are subject to extinction. According to Beissinger and
Perrine, "catastrophic events, such as prolonged or intense
droughts, floods, freezes, or even thermonuclear war or a meteor
slamming into Earth may result in the death of all individuals of a
population or species" (52). Extinction and extirpation (local
extinction) has been occurring on varying scales for the entire
history of the Earth. According to the most recent estimates, the
3-10 million species currently on Earth only represents 2-4 percent
of all the species that have ever lived (Jablonski 1991, 1995).
divide the process of endangerment into three phases (see right). At
some point in its history, a species will likely be at its carrying
capacity, K. As the species' numbers drop, it goes into the
Declining Phase. Different populations may become very small
throughout a species' range, and individually they may go extinct or
recover. The population's viability may decline as the result of a
steady loss of genetic diversity during this Bottleneck Phase. The
smaller the bottleneck size and the longer it stays in the bottleneck
phase, the greater loss of genetic diversity the species will
experience. Ultimately, the population will either enter the
Recovery Phase or go extinct.
are usually divided into two general types: deterministic and
stochastic. Deterministic forces include 'habitat destruction,
overharvesting, or pollution," among others (Beissinger and
Perrine, 53). Stochastic factors are chance events. There are four
main types of stochastic that can affect the likelihood of
extinction: genetic stochasticity, demographic stochasticity,
environmental stochasticity, and catastrophe (Shaffer 1981). According
to Beissinger and Perrine, “genetic stochasticity refers
to the mortality and loss of fitness that can result from the
expression of deleterious recessive genes resulting from inbreeding
of close relatives, and the loss of genetic diversity that can
occur...from genetic drift.' Demographic stochasticity is 'the
chance that normal birth and death processes will become unbalanced
when populations are reduced in size.” Environmental
stochasticity "refers to the year-to-year variation in birth and death
naturally occurs, often as a result of changes in resources or
weather." Catastrophes, like hurricanes, fire, extreme cold can
affect populations of any size. The Endangered Species Act primarily
concerns itself with deterministic events, but there is more and more
pressure from conservation biologists to consider
environmental stochasticity as well as catastrophic events in the
protection of biodiversity.
Politics and the ESA
The ESA protects
endangered animals from any governmental agency, corporation or
citizen from taking' (killing or harming) without a permit.
According to Section 7(a).2., federal agencies are forbidden from
authorizing, funding, or carrying out any action that may "jeopardize
the continued existence of” an endangered species. The listed
species' habitat is also protected under the Act, a provision that
requires "critical habitat" be designated, including areas
necessary for the recovery of the species (Section 3.5.A.). Federal
agencies are also forbidden from authorizing, funding, or carrying
out any action which "destroys or adversely modifies"
critical habitat (also part of Section 7(a).2.).
Species Act is administered by the United States Fish and Wildlife
Service (USFWS), who have responsibility for freshwater fish and all other
species, and NOAA Fisheries, who is responsible for marine species.
Species occurring in both habitats, like sea turtle, are jointly
managed. Section 11 of the Act allows citizens to sue the government
to enforce the law. In such a
situation, each of the branches of the United States government may
intervene, including Congress, the Supreme Court and the President.
"Nothing is more priceless and
more worth of preservation than the rich array of animal life with
which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure,
of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it
forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans."
-President Richard M. Nixon, as he signed Endangered Species Act into law, 1973
Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, proponents and scholars of biodiversity
adapted from Bessinger and Perrine