Baby mangabey monkey, mangabey monkey, endangered species
Fiona Hanson/PA Wire via AP Images
A critically endangered baby mangabey monkey at the London Zoo.

The Making of an Endangered Species

January 17, 2011 07:00 AM
by James Sullivan
Take a look at the origins of the endangered species list and learn what qualifies a species for inclusion on the list.

The Endangered Species Act

Though the endangered species list originated with legislation passed during the 1960s and ’70s, the spirit of conservation that led to its creation goes back much further. During the late 19th century, reports of dwindling animal populations in the American West—particularly the buffalo and passenger pigeon—brought the concept of “extinction” to the American public and catalyzed a movement to preserve America’s untouched wilderness areas. Early federal legislation aimed at animal protection included the Lacey Act of 1900, which banned interstate commerce of animals or plants killed in violation of game laws, and the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, issued to counteract declining populations of the U.S.’s iconic symbol.

The Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 is the predecessor to 1973’s landmark Endangered Species Act (ESA). It called for the creation of a list of endangered domestic species, and allocated funds to the creation of habitats for these animals. It also “encouraged” other government agencies to protect these species. The first list cited 78 species as being near extinction, which are referred to as the “Class of 67.”

A conference in Washington, D.C., in 1973 resulted in 80 nations signing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES). The convention limited, or restricted, trade in animal and plant species deemed harmful to those species’ populations. Later in 1973, Congress drafted comprehensive legislation for the protection of endangered animals, deeming amendments to the 1966 act inadequate. The legislation that resulted was the ESA.

Among other things, the act “defined ‘endangered’ and ‘threatened’ [section 3]; made plants and all invertebrates eligible for protection [section 3]; … [and] required Federal agencies to use their authorities to conserve listed species and consult on ‘may affect’ actions [section 7].”

The most commonly referenced outcome of this flurry of conservation legislation is the endangered species list.

Qualifying for the List

For a plant or animal to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act, it must first find its way onto the endangered species list, which is regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The FWS bases eligibility for the endangered species list on five factors: “1) damage to, or destruction of, a species’ habitat; 2) overutilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; 3) disease or predation; 4) inadequacy of existing protection; and 5) other natural or manmade factors that affect the continued existence of the species. When one or more of these factors imperils the survival of a species, the FWS takes action to protect it. To ensure the accuracy of the data, the FWS decides all listings using sound science and peer review.”

The FWS offers a PDF document explaining the lengthy process of petition and review required before a species can be listed as endangered.

Ever wonder what species are on the endangered list? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides a resource where visitors can learn just that.

Snail Darter Controversy

During the 1970s, the discovery of a small fish in the soon-to-be-flooded Little Tennessee River led to what some consider the definitive legal controversy of the environmental movement. The fish, called a “snail darter,” was added to the endangered species list, stalling construction of the Tellico Dam—a project that had already cost taxpayers $100 million. The “snail darter was instantly transformed into both an icon for species preservation and a despised symbol of the environmental movement’s alleged excesses.”
Lawsuits over the fate of the dam and the fish were taken to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled that survival of the species was paramount, and no exception would be made for the Tellico Dam project.

Ultimately, an amendment passed in 1979 exempted Tellico from the ESA, and the dam was completed. The snail darter was removed from the endangered species list in the ’80s after being successfully transplanted into the Hiwassee River.

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