A species (group of like organisms that can reproduce) is listed as endangered if it is in immediate danger of extinction throughout all or a significant part of its habitat. Fossils show that many plants and animals have become extinct over millions of years.
As of 2004, there are about 400 animals and 600 plants that are native to the United States listed as endangered. Over 125 animals and nearly 150 plants are currently listed as threatened. A species is listed as threatened if that species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
Many species of plants and animals become endangered and extinct naturally, usually due to changes in climate or loss of food sources. However, over the last several centuries, humans have posed a new threat to plants and animals. Human activities have resulted in the extinction of thousands of species.
Human activities, such as hunting and pollution, continued to endanger many species. Worldwide, over 1,500 species of plants and animals are listed as endangered. Nearly 200 of these endangered species are fish or other aquatic animals.
Causes of species’ extinction
The rapid growth of the human population over the last several centuries led humans to develop more land. The development of land for farming often leads to clearing native forests and jungles.
Clearing these lands leads to the destruction of the habitats of many species. The destruction of a species’ habitat may lead to their endangerment and extinction due to the loss of food and shelter.
Human activities that have caused pollution have also led to loss of habitat and the endangerment and extinction of species. Human advancements in technology have increased greatly from the mid-eighteenth century.
During the Industrial Revolution (1750–1900) humans shifted from economies based on agriculture and small businesses to industry and large corporations. Coal and petroleum, which cause pollution, powered the machines of the Industrial Revolution and today. Pollution can cause the extinction and endangerment of species by harming that species’ shelter, food source, and water supply.
Whether for food or sport, humans have also hunted several species into endangerment and extinction. The dodo, a flightless bird, was hunted into extinction by humans and nonnative animals that invaded its habitat.
Between 1850 and 1910, settlers in the western United States hunted the American bison until it was endangered. In the twentieth century, poachers threaten the survival of the African elephant and rhinoceros. Poachers are hunters who illegally kill wild animals in order to profit from the sale of the furs, hides, tusks, or other parts of the animals.
Humans have had an even more severe impact on marine wildlife. Pollution, in particular, has taken a great toll on aquatic animals, because these species are often more sensitive to changes in habitat than plants and animals on land.
Commercial fishing and whaling also threatened the existence of fish and whale species. The survival of the Atlantic salmon for example, is threatened in the wild today. Fishing and whaling were some of the first areas to face strict government controls and laws to protect species from further endangerment.
Endangered Species Protection Act of 1966
By the mid-twentieth century, the negative influence of humans on plants and animals became apparent. With thousands of species facing extinction, many nations passed laws to save these species.
The United States Congress passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966 and the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1969. These two laws were a major step towards recognizing the need for humans to act in order to prevent the extinction of plants and animals.
Despite the positive step forward of the Endangered Species Preservation Act and the Endangered Species Conservation Act, the two acts did little to prevent the extinction of species. The Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 only allowed for animals native to the United States to be listed as endangered.
Once a species was identified as endangered, the Endangered Species Preservation Act offered little protection for that species. The Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 allowed for species around the world to be listed as endangered. The law also prohibited the import of endangered species into the United States.
Heightened need for protection of endangered species
Realizing the need for increased protection of endangered species, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973. After signing the Endangered Species Act into law, President Richard Nixon (1913–1994) stated, “Nothing is more priceless and worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”
Under the Endangered Species Act, species may be listed as endangered or threatened. Once a species is listed as endangered or threatened, the Endangered Species Act provides for strict protective action to be taken in order to preserve that species. Recovery plans prevent hunters and fishers from killing an endangered species or threatened species.
Landowners are also required to avoid taking any action that would threaten the survival of an endangered or threatened species. Landowners may not clear land or remove water from an area that is a natural habitat for the endangered or threatened species.
One of the primary goals of the Endangered Species Act is to provide protection that allows the population of a species to recover. Once the population of the species has rebounded, it is removed from the list of endangered or threatened species. An endangered species may also be downgraded to threatened as its numbers increase.
The Endangered Species Act has been successful in preventing the extinction of species in the United States. However it has had limited success in population recovery and removal from the list of endangered or threatened species.
Over 1,300 species have been listed on the Endangered Species Act’s list of endangered or threatened species. Only 30 species as of 2004 have had population recoveries that allowed their removal from the list.
The Endangered Species Act also signals the United States’ participation in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. Also passed in 1973, CITES restricts international trade of plant and animal species that are endangered or threatened by such trading. Perhaps the best-known example is a ban on the trade of elephant ivory.
The Endangered Species Act lists nearly 600 endangered or threatened plants and animals that are not native to the United States. Under the Endangered Species Act and CITES, it is illegal for anyone in the United States to buy, sell, or trade these plants and animals or any product that contains them.