Has America’s 50-year fight to protect endangered species been successful?

Photo illustration showing disappearing animals.
Photo illustration: Chantal Jahchan for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

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What’s happening

In the nearly 50 years since the Endangered Species Act was enacted, the law has been credited with preventing hundreds of plants and animals from disappearing forever. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been controversial.

The act has sparked some major legal fights and has been blamed for billions of dollars in lost economic development. Even some environmentalists believe it hasn’t actually been very effective and is poorly designed to address the changing threats that are driving species toward extinction.

The success of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) depends on how you measure it. Some iconic animal species that were once on the brink of extinction — including the bald eagle and American alligator — have recovered to the point that they are no longer considered under threat. But those creatures are the exception. The overwhelming majority of the 1,600-plus plants and animals that have been added to the endangered list over the years are still on it, meaning their survival is still at risk.

Climate change has also shifted the conversation in ways that Congress could not have envisioned when it passed the ESA five decades ago. Habitat destruction, pollution and toxic pesticides, combined with the effects of rising global temperatures, now lead some scientists to believe as many as 1 million species worldwide could be at imminent risk of extinction.

Why there’s debate

Most people support the idea of saving species, but there is intense debate over whether the approach the U.S. has used for the past 50 years is the right way to accomplish that goal.

Under the ESA, strict rules can be put in place to protect a habitat when an endangered species is found there. Conservatives have long argued that these restrictions not only stifle economic growth, but also harm the cause of protecting wildlife by creating a massive incentive for private landowners to keep these species off their property. They say a better system would reward people who nurture endangered animals on their land.

Many critics also say the ESA is far too broad when it comes to the types of species it protects. While grizzlies and bald eagles are the face of the law, a huge share of the species currently listed for protection are things like insects, tiny fish, and mussels whose value is dismissed by these critics.

Environmentalists argue that America’s anti-extinction laws are much too weak. They often refer to the ESA as the “emergency room” of extinction, meaning species must already be in a state of crisis by the time they’re afforded any real protections. Many ecologists believe the U.S. and the world need a more proactive strategy that safeguards wildlife before it’s on the cusp of vanishing.

What’s next

The future of the ESA could depend on the next presidential election. Former President Donald Trump sought to significantly roll back the scope of the law and would presumably try again if he regained the presidency. President Biden has been a consistent defender of the ESA since taking office.


We need to start protecting species before they’re in crisis

“It's cheapest and easiest to conserve species before they decline to the point where they're in danger of extinction. So what we really need is to extend the safety net beyond the Endangered Species Act.” — Robert Fischman, environmental law professor at Indiana University, to PBS NewsHour

Current law makes landowners and wildlife adversaries — they should be allies

“If property owners knew there would be a little extra money associated with finding an endangered species, they’d make their land more hospitable to the species and help in its recovery. As it stands, the act puts the well-being of humans in opposition to endangered species and creates perverse incentives that hinder recovery efforts.” — Dominic Pino, National Review

Let’s be honest, not every species is worth saving

“Virtually everyone envisioned the law protecting bald eagles and manatees, not halting infrastructure builds or slowing economic development in the name of slimy invertebrates or obscure fish.” — Tate Watkins, Reason

Species protection can’t come at the expense of fighting climate change

“Sometimes we need to intrude into the critical habitat of an endangered species if that habitat is where we need to put our wind farms, solar arrays, transmission lines to carry the power or the mines to extract essential minerals for the manufacture of the new clean energy equipment. … Because if we don’t make this choice, far more birds, bats and much else will die from the ravages of climate change.” — Michael B. Gerrard, Columbia University environmental and energy law professor

Our laws don’t actually address the real reasons wildlife is being pushed to the brink

“The U.S. is far emptier of wildlife sights and sounds than it was 50 years ago, primarily because habitat—forests, grasslands, rivers — has been relentlessly appropriated for human purposes. The ESA was never designed to stop that trend, any more than it is equipped to deal with the next massive threat to wildlife: climate change.” — Robert Kunzig, Scientific American

Our strategy is fine, it just needs more money

“The Endangered Species Act ain’t broke and needs no fixing, just more funding to get the job done.” — Roy Jacobs and Bill Cunningham, Billings Gazette

The No. 1 goal right now is defending the ESA from conservative attacks

“The ESA is the hero our wildlife deserves, and the American public on both sides of the aisle are overwhelmingly giving rave reviews for the protections it provides. Yet, despite the popularity of the ESA, anti-environment lawmakers in Congress are still on a mission to gut it.” — Katie Hobbs, Natural Resources Defense Council

Humans need to realize that saving animals really means saving ourselves

“Though we treat conservation as an altruistic pursuit — a special interest championed by a passionate few — it’s also a selfish cause. We should approach conservation not as an opportunity for heroics, but as an obligation to the relationships we depend on for survival.” — Michelle Nijhuis, New York Times