What is the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973?

What is The Endangered Species Act
Nasir Khan

Nasir Khan

We breakdown the Endangered Species Act of America and how it helps conserve Earth’s threatened species.


The Endangered Species Act of 1973, also known as ESA or “The Act” is the primary law in the United States of America for protecting endangered or imperilled species on Earth. It was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 28, 1973.

The Act is designed to protect critically imperilled species from extinction due “Consequence of economic growth and development untampered by adequate concern and conservation”.

The Supreme Court of the United States described the ESA as “the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species enacted by any nation”.

Purpose of the Endangered Species Act

The purpose of the  Endangered Species Act is two-fold:

  1. To prevent extinction of imperilled species.

  2. To recover species to the point where the law’s protections are no longer needed.

So, the ESA Act – quoting from the Act itself –  “protect[s] species and the ecosystems upon which they depend” – in various ways.

The Act also ensures to hold each and every stakeholder responsible before the law including the authorities sitting at the highest level of the government. California historian Kevin Starr was a strong advocate for the act, stating: “The Endangered Species Act of 1972 is the Magna Carta of the environmental movement”.

How does the ‘Endangered Species Act’ work?

The Endangered Species Act is administered by two US federal agencies – [1.] The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and [2.] National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

The Act gives the FWS and NMFS the authority to promulgate any rules and guidelines within the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) to implement its provisions of the Act. Together, these two organizations are referred to as “services” in the context of the Act.

The ESA also serves as the enacting legislation to carry out the provisions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

A Brief History of ‘The Act’

The early 1900s saw a visible decline of several species like Bison, the Passenger Pigeon, and Whooping Cranes due to reasons such as loss of habitat, illegal shooting, and DDT poisoning. This phenomenon initiated calls for wildlife conservation efforts during the 1900 era in the United States.

To address these concerns, the Lacey Act of 1900 was established by the US Congress. The act became the first federal law regulating the commercial animal markets and it prohibited the sale of illegally hunted animals between the states.

To further strengthen the conservation efforts, this soon enough followed with some more legislation viz. the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, a 1937 treaty prohibiting the hunting of white and gray whales, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940.

endangered species act statistics

Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966

Despite the ongoing protection efforts and treaties, the population of many species continued to decline. Only 16 Whooping Cranes remained in the wild by 1941 and the Bald Eagle was also endangered by 1963.

The organizations working at that time (namely the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) tried to prevent the extinction of these species but lacked the necessary congressional authority and funding in its operations. 

To solve this problem, the US Congress passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act on October 15, 1966 which aimed to conserve, protect, and restore the selected species of native fish and wildlife.

Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969

The list of species in the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 included only vertebrates at the time because of the limited definition of “fish and wildlife ” which the modern Act now carries. 

The 1969 Act was amended to establish a complete list of species in danger of worldwide extinction and this resulted into the formation of the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969. It expanded protections for species covered in 1966 and added to the list of protected species.

While the 1966 Act was only applied to ‘game’ and wild birds, the 1969 Act also protected mollusks and crustaceans. Punishments for poaching or unlawful importation or sale of these species were also increased and any violations now could result in a $10,000 fine or up to one year of jail time.

Endangered Species Act of 1973

In 1972, President Nixon declared that the previous law of 1969 was insufficient for the future. He called on the 93rd United States Congress to pass comprehensive endangered species legislation. The Congress thereby responded with the latest Endangered Species Act of 1973, which was signed into law by Nixon on December 28, 1973.

In the signing statement, president Nixon also wrote, “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy 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 ”.

The Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 itself became a template for the newly Endangered Species Act of 1973 by integrating the phrase “based on the best scientific and commercial data.” This standard is now used as a guideline to determine if a species is in danger of extinction.

The ESA of 1973 resulted in landmark conservation law. Many academic researchers referred to the latest law as “one of the nation’s most significant environmental laws.” The Act has also been called “one of the most powerful environmental statutes in the U.S. and one of the world’s strongest species protection laws.”

Various Sections of the Act

Unlike previous Acts, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 comprises different Sections that define its functioning, motive and vision to achieve.

So, let’s go through all the sections to have a better understanding of the Act.


Gives the Title and a brief purpose behind the Act which is “To provide for the conservation of endangered and threatened species of fish, wildlife, and plants, and for other purposes.” 

Section 2: Findings, Purposes, and Policy

Section 2 covers the findings and purposes of the ESA in detail and also talks about the history behind the ESA of 1973.

Section 3: Definitions

Section 3 provides us with a set of definitions of various wildlife related terminology like Conservation, Take and others.

Section 4: Determination of Endangered Species and Threatened Species

Section 4 provides details on the process or criteria upon which different species are listed as Endangered or Protected in the ESA. It covers listings and critical habitat designations and also talks about recovery and monitoring of species.

Section 5: Land Acquisition

This section defines procedures and criteria through which land may be acquired from either government or public in order to convert it into a habitat for protected species.

Section 6: Cooperation with the States

Cooperation with the states is about cooperation of different stakeholders involved in the conservation of species listed in the Act. It also works for providing funding to territories and states for conservation actions on non-federal lands.

Section 7: Interagency Cooperation

Interagency Cooperation is about ensuring that laws or rules and regulations of the ESA 1973 are implemented properly so that they become a ground reality not merely a formal listing on a piece of paper. It requires federal agencies to consult the Secretory while taking conservation efforts so that their actions don’t harm the listed species and their ecosystems.  

Section 8: International Cooperation

International Cooperation encourages cooperation between the federal agencies and foreign governments worldwide through CITES. It works to establish treaties and other economic incentives to strengthen efforts for conserving wildlife species listed.

Section 8A: Convention Implementation

8a talks about implementation of plannings and procedures resulting from the international cooperation for protecting the listed endangered species.

Section 9: Prohibited Acts

Section 9 talks about actions or activities that jeopardize the protected species or the effects of conservation efforts taken to protect the endangered species.

Section 10: Exceptions

Section 10 details the exceptions to Section 9 of the Act. It addresses the permits that the services can issue which allows limited Take of various species under certain conditions like scientific research or lawful activities by non-federal entities.

Section 11: Penalties and Enforcement

This section describes the civil and criminal penalties for violating the provisions of the Act.

Section 12: Endangered Plants

Section 12 includes plants that are listed as endangered species and are needed to be protected under the provisions of the Act.

Section 13: Conforming Amendments

This section consists of various amendments to other Acts.

Section 14: Repealer

This section talks regarding the prior repeals of various provisions of the Act.

Section 15: Authorization of Appropriations

Authorization of appropriations is abbott allocation and authorization of fundings for the work of conservation activities defined in the Act.

Section 16: Effective Date

This section simply states that “This Act shall take effect on the date of its enactment.”

Section 17: Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972

Section 17 simply states the following – “Except as otherwise provided in this Act, no provision of this Act shall take precedence over any more restrictive conflicting provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972”.

Section 18: Annual Cost Analysis by the Fish and Wildlife Service

This section requires the Secretary of the Interior to submit annual report filings to the Congress regarding details on all expenditures of federal government funds incurred during the preceding fiscal year.


The Endangered Species Act of 1973 aims to protect endangered species of the world. If you want to read the full details of the Act, you can refer to Endanangered Species Act of 1973.

Plants and animals maintain the health of an ecosystem. When a species becomes endangered, it’s a sign that an ecosystem is out of balance. The consequences of this imbalance can be critical. 

At One Tribe we support rainforest protection projects which are the home to a variety of flora, fauna and wildlife. By supporting these projects we aid the conservation of species around the world in hopes of protecting them from extinction. For more information on how we protect rainforests and their resident wildlife, check out our projects page and join us in taking climate action!

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