On this date in 1973, one of the most important pieces of wildlife conservation legislation was signed into law by President Richard Nixon.
While the Endangered Species Act wasn’t the first set of laws passed to protect the habitats and livelihood of native species put at risk by the expanding spread of human civilization, it’s near universally recognized as the most effective at maintaining and restoring populations of animals at serious risk of extinction.
Proceeded by the Lacey Act of 1900 (which prohibited the sale of illegally killed animals between states and regulated commercial animal markets), the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1937 (Created a commission to review sale of land to the UF Fish and Wildlife Service to establish waterfowl refuges), a 1937 ban on hunting of whales, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, the ESA was a cumulation of sorts of all previously enacted laws to provide one concise body of work that would provide protection for whatever species qualified that the United States was at risk of losing.
Prior to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 there were two iterations which effectively were trying to accomplish the same thing. In 1966, the Endangered Species Preservation Act was signed into law in an effort to protect the Bald Eagle, along with a number of other species which were severely at risk of disappearing.
The Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 amended the 1966 law to include mollusks and crustaceans and put in place penalties for poaching any animal listed in either Act. Both the 1966 and 1969 Acts were repealed by the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which remains in place to this day.
While much noise is often made about what animals should or should not be currently listed under the law, I believe it’s important to look back at some of the successes of the ESA. That is not to provide a reason to stop protecting wildlife, but as support for the continuation of the preservation of at risk species, and to realize that while the framework may not be perfect, undoubtedly it has been effective and a resounding positive for the the United States ecosystem.
Here are 6 species saved thanks to the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
According to FWS, prior to 1800, some 50,000 grizzlies roamed much of the western half of the lower 48. As settlers moved across the continent, the bears were displaced by a combination of habitat disruption due to civilizations being built as well as hunting by the area’s new residents and populations began to plummet. By the 1930’s, grizzlies were reduced to 2% of their natural habitat and only around 700 to 800 bears were still living by 1975.
The ESA provided a framework for bringing back this apex predator and through its many iterations, it can be described as nothing other than a success. Today, at least 1,923 bears live in the lower 48 and the population is described as stable.
Grizzly bears are still listed as threatened species, but very few researchers believe they are at danger of going extinct.
Prior to European settlement of the United States, the University of Vermont says up to 10,000 whooping cranes were present throughout the continent and around 1,500 still remained into the mid 1800’s. But as with many species, heavy hunting pressures and habitat disruption from new settlement caused the population to plummet, bottoming in 1944 when only 21 birds remained in the entirety of the world.
The current goal for a sustainable population is 1,000 birds and things look to be going well for the whooping crane, as 543 are currently living in the wild, according to the US FWS.
While many animals were in the middle of the Endangered Animal fight, perhaps none captured countrywide attention so much as our national bird.
While the typical hunting and habitat disturbance tells a part of the population decline story, bald eagles were also affected by DDT, an insecticide used heavily by farmers until it was banned 2004. This chemical cocktail wreaked havoc on huge sections of the environment, including bald eagles, who ingested the pesticide by consuming fish who were swimming in DDT contaminated waters.
By 1963, only 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles remained in the lower 48. A slew of protections were put in place and the population in the lower 48 as of 2018-2019 sits around 316,700 individuals, according to FWS, a 37,874% increase from the 1963 low.
The Bald Eagle was removed from the Endangered Species list in August of 2007 due to this large rebound, however it’s still heavily protected by the Migratory Birds Conservation Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Whale hunting has been a part of civilizations for a long, long time and the predation of these enormous marine mammals caused huge problems to their populations. According to NOAA, humpback whale populations were reduced to 95% of their historic high by 1985, when the final ban on all whale hunting in the US went into effect.
The Endangered Species Coalition says the current population is around 80,000 humpbacks globally, up from the low point of 10,000 to 15,000, although they are still listed as Endangered.
Another victim of DDT, the peregrine falcon was pushed to the brink of extinction back in the 1970’s. Prior to WWII and the adoption of widespread DDT usage, there were around 3,875 nesting pairs in North America but by 1975 only 324 remained, according to The Nature Conservancy.
Thanks to a combination of protections for those remaining in the wild and releases of captive bred birds, the population has increased to around 72,000 in North America, making it one of the greatest successes of the EDA to date.
The infamous swamp puppy that is ever present in the south east, especially Florida and Louisiana, was nearly hunted to extinction by the 1960’s. Alligators were first listed as endangered back in 1967 and began making a suburb comeback nearly immediately. The species was delisted in specific regions throughout the 70’s and 80’s before it was taken off entirely in 1987.
Today, there are around 5 million alligators in the US, up from around 100,000 in the late 1950’s, according to the NYT.
If you’ve been in the deep south any time recently, you’ll know these dinosaur-like creatures are in absolutely no danger of going anywhere.