July 17, 2018

Modernizing the Endangered Species Act


  • Since the Endangered Species Act was first passed 1973, only 3 percent of species protected by the law have recovered to the point where they are no longer threatened or endangered. 
  • The ESA can and should be strengthened so that it not only continues to protect species, but also promotes their full recovery.
  • The Western Governors Association has developed bipartisan policy recommendations for legislation to improve recovery plans and enhance state and federal partnerships. 

Since 1973, the federal government has listed 1,661 domestic species of plants and animals as endangered or threatened. Only 54, about 3 percent, have actually recovered. It has become evident that the Endangered Species Act helps species avoid extinction, but has had little success in helping them fully recover. As more species are added and very few species are removed from the lists, the economic burdens of the ESA continue to grow. With 363 additional species nationwide to be considered for listing by 2023, now is a good time to make the ESA better for both the environment and the economy.

Domestic Endangered Species by the Numbers



The ESA primarily empowers the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list species of plants and animals as “endangered” or “threatened” depending on their risk of extinction. Listed species may not be killed, captured, or harmed in virtually any other way unless the federal government grants an exemption. For example, if a rancher finds an endangered bird’s nest with eggs in a tree on his land, cutting down the tree without permission would violate the ESA.

Exemptions are rarely sought or granted because the process can take more than six months and the applicant must pay for any activities to mitigate the effect of the exemption.

The other main ways by which listed species are protected is the designation of “critical habitats.” Federal entities and private entities that get federal funds or licenses may not take actions that harm critical habitats of the listed species. Any federal or private land can be declared a critical habitat, but the designation only practically matters if the land has a federal connection.

In most cases, the secretary of the interior decides what species make the endangered and threatened lists. Private parties or state entities can petition the secretary to decide on a particular species. The secretary must develop a recovery plan for each listed species to get off the list, but the plans are nonbinding. Consequently, the recovery plans are often vague, offering little guidance to anyone whose land or activities are restricted.


The law has been effective at preserving species, but not at achieving recovery. Conservation groups and experts across the political spectrum have offered ways to improve the ESA.

The research group Strata has called for expanding the role of state governments in species recovery. State agencies generally have more local expertise and additional resources that can aid in recovery, but they are often allowed only a nominal role in the federal decision-making process. Other organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity have offered recommendations for improving species recovery. They suggest requiring specific recovery goals as a precondition to downgrading a species’ threat level. For example, a species might need to reach a population of 10,000 before downgrading its status. Another recommendation was for specific findings on whether critical-habitat designation plans would merely stabilize the species in question or lead to full recovery.

The Western Governors Association also has recommended bipartisan principles for ESA improvement. The governors called for greater state involvement in administering and implementing the ESA, as well as clear recovery goals for listed species.

A Challenge for All States, Not Just the WEST

Though governors in the West have been particularly active in ESA improvement efforts, the challenges surrounding implementation will increasingly affect states in the East, South, and Midwest. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s seven year workplan, 363 additional species will be considered for listing by 2023.

Possible New Endangered Species Listings by 2023


Collectively, states spend $5.6 billion on conservation annually and can call upon 11,000 wildlife biologists, 10,000 wildlife law enforcement officers, and other specialized employees. This funding is double the $2.8 billion sought in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s fiscal year 2019 budget request. States are well situated to play a larger role in sound management of endangered species across the country.


Issue Tag: Environment