Endangered Species

Controversies about endangered species center on the value of species and the cost of protecting and preserving them and their habitats. There are debates about whether a particular species is going extinct and whether a particular policy actually does protect a designated species. Natural resource extraction (logging, mining, grazing), land and road development into wildlife habitats, and increased recreational use are all central issues in this controversy.


Species extinctions have occurred along with evolution. As plant and animal species evolve over time, some adaptations fail. As human population has increased, along with our hunting, farming, and foraging capacities, plant and animal species have begun to disappear faster. Pollution, climate change, and other significant environmental impacts can destroy species in sensitive niches in the food chain. In most cases species are endangered because of human impacts, but each case can present its own issues.

The evidence for human impact on species in the United States is often based on successful eradication programs for problem pests. Knowledge about species extinctions grew as environmentalists, hunters, researchers, and others observed extinctions and near-extinctions of several species, such as the buffalo and pigeon. Endangered species create a great concern for productive bioregions and ecosystem integrity. They can represent a significant part of the food web, and their loss can forever weaken other parts of that food web. Eventually, this great social concern for endangered species found its way into law, now one of the main tools used by advocates on either side of the debate.

Debate over Saving a Species

Debates arise about whether a species is in danger of becoming extinct. When a species is designated endangered, more debate ensues over whether it is worth saving and what governmental polices might help to preserve it. One consideration is the species’ habitat. Should activities that might benefit humans—such as mining, logging and grazing—be permitted? Should industrial and residential development continue? Should recreation be limited in wildlife areas?

Species Have Disappeared Naturally

As plant and animal species evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, some became extinct because they failed to adapt appropriately to the natural world. Scientists think that an increasing human population accelerated the process of extinction. Hunting, farming, pollution, climate change, and other human encroachments on species’ environments can destroy species in sensitive niches in the food chain. What to do about these activities and conditions is subject to debate.

The evidence for human impact on species in the United States is often based on successful eradication programs for problem pests. Knowledge about dwindling species has resulted from the observations of hunters, researchers, environmentalists, and others. Examples are the much smaller number of American bison and the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which has not been seen in the wild since the 1920s. Endangered species can be a great concern for bioregions and the ecosystem. They can be an important part of the food chain, and their loss can weaken other parts of that chain. Eventually, the concern for species becoming endangered found its way into laws that have become a subject of debate.

U.S. Laws Stir Controversy

The 1966 federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) sets the policy for species preservation. It is controversial and involves issues such as long-term leases of public lands, private property, and defensible science. Scientific controversies include ecosystem risk assessment, the concept of a species and how it has been interpreted for ESA application, and conflicts between species when individual species are identified for protection and others are not. One such controversy is over the preservation of the habitat for the spotted owl in Oregon, which prevented logging. Approximately 60 logging mills subsequently closed. There are current discussions about whether saving the owl’s habitat saved the bird (note: why was saving the bird important?). Endangered species designation can affects natural resource extraction such as logging and mining by prohibiting or limiting it.

Before a plant or animal species can receive protection under the ESA, it must first be placed on the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife and plants. The listing program follows a strict legal process to determine whether to list a species, depending on the degree of threat it faces. The law has levels of designation: An endangered species is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. The federal government maintains a list of plants and animals native to the United States that have potential to be added to the federal list of endangered species.

Small but Important Step

When the U.S. Congress passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the law was deemed a small but important first step toward species preservation. The law allows listing of only native animal species as endangered and provided limited means for the protection of species so listed. The Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Defense were to seek to protect listed species and to preserve the habitats of such species. Land acquisition for protection of endangered species was also authorized by law. In 1969, another law was passed to provide additional protection to species in danger of worldwide extinction. The next law was the Endangered Species Conservation Act. This law bans the importation and sale of such species in the United States.

World Wakes Up to Problem

The 1969 act also called for an international meeting to adopt a convention on the conservation of endangered species, and in 1973 a conference in Washington led to the signing of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It restricts international commerce in plant and animal species believed to be actually or potentially harmed by trade. After that conference, the U.S. Congress passed the ESA of 1973. This law combined and strengthened the provisions of earlier laws. It also had the effect of intensifying the controversy.

Its principal provisions follow:

  • U.S. and foreign species lists were combined, with uniform provisions applied to both categories of endangered and threatened.
  • Plants and all classes of invertebrates were eligible for protection, as they are under CITES.
  • All federal agencies were required to undertake programs for the conservation of endangered and threatened species and were prohibited from authorizing, funding, or carrying out any action that would jeopardize a listed species or destroy or modify its critical habitat.
  • Broad prohibitions were applied to all endangered animal species, which could also apply to threatened animals by special regulation.
  • Matching federal funds became available for states with cooperative agreements.
  • Authority was provided to acquire land for listed animals and for plants listed under CITES.
  • U.S. implementation of CITES was provided.

Although the overall thrust of the 1973 act has remained the same, amendments were enacted in 1978, 1982, and 1988. Principal amendments are as follows:

  • Provisions were added to Section 7, allowing federal agencies to undertake an action that would jeopardize listed species if the action were exempted by a cabinet-level committee convened for this purpose.
  • Critical habitat was required to be designated concurrently with the listing of a species, when prudent, and economic and other effects of designation were required to be considered in deciding the boundaries.
  • The secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture were directed to develop a program for conserving fish, wildlife, and plants, including listed species, and land acquisition authority was extended to such species.
  • The definition of species with respect to populations was restricted to vertebrates; otherwise, any species, subspecies, variety of plant, or species or subspecies of animal remained listable under the act.
  • Determinations of the status of species were required to be made solely on the basis of biological and trade information, without any consideration of possible economic or other effects.
  • A final ruling on the status of a species was required to follow within one year of its proposal unless withdrawn for cause.
  • Provision was made for designation of experimental populations of listed species that could be subject to different treatment under Section 4, for critical habitat, and Section 7.
  • A prohibition was inserted against removing listed plants from land under federal jurisdiction and reducing them to possession.
  • Monitoring of candidate and recovered species was required, with adoption of emergency listing when there is evidence of significant risk.
  • A new section requires a report of all reasonably identifi able expenditures on a species-by-species basis that were made to assist the recovery of endangered or threatened species by the states and the federal government.
  • Protection for endangered plants was extended to include destruction on federal land and other taking when it violates state law.

Several amendments dealt with recovery matters:

  • Recovery plans are required to undergo public notice and review, and affected federal agencies must give consideration to those comments.
  • Five years of monitoring of species that have recovered are required.
  • Biennial reports are required on the development and implementation of recovery plans and on the status of all species with plans.

Roll Call of the Imperiled

As of June 2010, a total of 1,220 species of animals and 798 species of plants in the United States were listed as threatened and endangered or proposed for listing as threatened or endangered. Forty-nine bird and animal species are currently proposed for listing, with 252 species in the United States designated as candidates for endangered status.

Over the years, 557 habitat conservation plans (HCPs) have been approved. According to law, a HCP outlines ways of maintaining, enhancing, and protecting a given habitat type needed to protect species. It usually includes measures to minimize adverse affects and may include provisions for permanently protecting land, restoring habitat, and relocating plants or animals to another area.

As of 2010, administrators approved 1,043 species for recovery plans. A recovery plan is a document drafted by a knowledgeable individual or group that serves as a guide for activities to be undertaken by federal, state, or private entities in helping to recover and conserve endangered or threatened species. Recovery priority is also determined in these plans. There can be differences of opinion as to how high a priority certain species should have in a recovery plan. A rank ranges from a high of 1 to a low of 18, and these set the priorities assigned to listed species and recovery tasks. The assignment of rank is based on degree of threat, recovery potential, taxonomic distinctiveness, and presence of an actual or imminent conflict between the species and development activities.

The regulations for protection of endangered species generally require protection of species habitat. As our population grows and development expands into natural areas, the protection of wildlife habitat becomes more important and more difficult. Preservation of riparian (water) migratory pathways, private conservation efforts, and applied scientific research all hold promise for species preservation. However, the need for wildlife habitat preservation will still impair the ability of some property owners use their land as they wish. The controversies around species preservation are likely to be around for a long time.


As human habitation extends into more wild areas, more species are likely to become extinct. Coral reefs are rapidly dying in many parts of the world and with them, many of the species that thrive there. There are strong world conservation efforts for species protection but also strong political conflict when it comes to that kind of preservation. As more information on human environmental impacts on marine environments develops, so too will lists of endangered species.

Also check the list of 100 most popular argumentative research paper topics.


  1. Barrow, Mark V. Jr., Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jeff erson to the Age of Ecology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  2. “Endangered and Extinct Species Lists,” http://eelink.net/EndSpp.old.bak/ES.lists.html
  3. Goble, Dale D., J. Michael Scott, and Frank W. Davis, eds., The Endangered Species Act at Thirty. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006.
  4. Office of Protected Resources, “Species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).” http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/esa/
  5. Shogren, Jason F., and John Tschirhart, eds., Protecting Endangered Species in the United States: Biological Needs, Political Realities, Economic Choices. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “Endangered Species Program.” June 2010. http://www.fws.gov/endangered/about/index.html
  6. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “TESS Database Species Report.” June 2010. http://ecos.fws.gov/tess_public/
  7. Westley, Frances R., and Philip S. Miller, Experiments in Consilience: Integrating Social and Scientific Responses to Save Endangered Species. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2003.


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