Rescued lions Samson and Tom at LIONSROCK

The endangered species act

Once a touchstone of bipartisan support, this landmark legislation is now under attack 


The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is the strongest conservation law we have and has been credited with saving 99% of species listed under it from extinction. At the same time, its ability to provide species recovery, along with getting species listed in the first place, has been undermined for decades by pro-business industries, among others.  

In a nutshell, the ESA is one of the most attacked pieces of legislation in US history by Republicans because they view it as a threat to economic progress and profit. Science is supposed to lead the legislation, but it’s been weakened over and over again due to lack of government funding, limits on enforcement, and restructuring of regulations that place politics, industry development, and economics over science-backed decisions and solutions.

In 2019, the Trump Administration was successful in severely harming the power of the ESA by changing important regulations under it. This included:

  •  Making a new rule under ESA Section 4 that adds economic considerations into listing decisions and a rule eliminating automatic protections for newly-listed threatened species.
  • Changes to the listing, delisting, and designation of critical habitat
  • Changed requirements for compliance with Section 7, which required federal agencies to ensure that actions they authorize, fund, or carry out do not jeopardize the existence of any species listed, or destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitat of any listed species.
  • Changes to the regulations governing the inter-agency consultations

Shortly after the 2019 rules were finalized, seven conservation organizations, a group of states and cities, and an animal rights group each filed suit in the Northern District of California; the cases were consolidated. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) vigorously defended the 2019 ESA rules for over a year, but asked for a series of stays of litigation starting in January 2021. So basically the 2019 rules have been allowed to stay in place until the Biden Administration submits proposed revisions to those rules, which just finally happened this August.

Cheetah Sasha at LIONSROCK

Cheetah Sasha at LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary

What’s happening now:

Currently the Biden Administration, through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), has proposed to reverse a few of the Trump Administration’s changes to the ESA, which is important; however, they fail to undo all the damaging regulatory changes that were made in 2019. So we support these necessary changes, but at the same time call on the Biden Administration to do even more.

Biden’s proposed rules to reverse some of the harmful ESA changes under Trump are:

1.       Reinstating default protections for threatened species managed by the FWS;

2.       Reaffirming that species listing decisions are made without economic consideration; and

3.       Revising how and when critical habitat is designated and allowing the Services to consider climate change-related impacts to habitat in their designations.

How FOUR PAWS USA is involved:

These FWS and NMFS proposed changes were subject to a public comment period and as part of our coalition work this August, FOUR PAWS USA joined with over 124 other organizations in submitting joint public comments and a more detailed comment letter to the Biden Administration outlining all of the changes to the draft regulations that the Services (FWS & NMFS) still needs to make to fully restore the ESA. One example of how the current proposed changes fall short:

FWS and NMFS failed to fully repair section 7 of the ESA, which governs how federal agencies ensure that their actions do not cause imperiled species to go extinct or destroy protected habitat. They also failed to reverse Trump’s damaging changes in section 4 that allow plants and animals to be prematurely delisted, among other shortcomings.

Tiger Raspoetin at LIONSROCK

Tiger Raspoetin at LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary

FOUR PAWS USA joined the ESA@50 coalition in signing a letter to be submitted this September to President Biden that further requests support for not only protecting the ESA but also more US government action against the current biodiversity loss and extinction crisis. These requests include:

  • Implement Whole of Government Approaches to Saving Biodiversity and Endangered Species by creating a National Biodiversity Strategy
  •  Boost Recovery of Endangered Species Through Robust Funding and Engaging Agencies Across Government
    • As it stands, FWS currently receives less than half of the funding required to fully implement the Act’s mandate to recover listed species. The ESA also requires all federal agencies to prioritize the conservation and recovery of endangered species, which has not been happening.
  •  Adopt an Ambitious Ecosystem-based Framework to Recover Endangered Species and Rebuild America’s Wildlife Population
    • 41% of ecosystems in the United States are at risk of range-wide collapse and global wildlife populations have declined by an average of 69%.
    • The ESA requires that “listed species and their ecosystems are restored,” however the concept of what “recovery” means remains poorly defined. In addition, recovery criteria are often inconsistently applied across species and lack a clear biological rationale.
ESA50 Coalition Letter

ESA50 Coalition Letter

Read the ESA50 Coalition Letter

Additional ESA-related coalition actions FOUR PAWS USA has supported this year:

House Appropriations Republicans have loaded up their draft annual spending bills with at least two dozen poison pill policy riders that attack wildlife, endangered species, and at-risk habitats. We’ve joined with other NGOs in signing letters to Congress asking Representatives and Senators to oppose these harmful amendments being added to federal spending bills. They include:

  • A May 18th letter to Representatives expressing strong opposition to H.J. Res. 29 and H.J. Res. 49, which would nullify two rules issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protecting the lesser prairie-chicken and the northern long-eared bat under the Endangered Species Act, and H.J. Res. 46, which would nullify the final rule issued jointly by the Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service rescinding the definition of “habitat” under the Act.
  • A May 10th letter to Senators expressing our strong opposition to S.J. Res. 24, which would nullify the final rule issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in November 2022 protecting the northern long-eared bat under the Endangered Species Act, and S.J. Res. 23, which would nullify the final rule issued jointly by the Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service rescinding the definition of “habitat” under the Act.
  • An April 27th letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Natural Resources Committee, expressing our strong opposition to the seven pieces of legislation being marked up on April 27th in the House Natural Resources Committee. Collectively these bills weaken the Endangered Species Act by eliminating vital protections for specific species of wildlife, undermine the law’s mandate to follow the best available science and put the short-term economic interests of powerful special interests above the preservation of this nation’s irreplaceable natural heritage. The 7 riders are:
    • H.J. Res. 29, H.J. Res. 49, and H.J. Res. 46 (mentioned in the May letters)
    • H.R. 215 (California Salmon and Delta Smelt) – Would harm numerous species of California salmon and steelhead, as well as the critically endangered Delta smelt, and threaten funding for restoration projects for these species.
    • H.R. 764 (Gray Wolf Delisting) – Would direct the Secretary of the Interior to reissue a rule prematurely removing endangered species protections for the Gray Wolf.
    • H.R. 1245 (Wyoming Grizzly Bears) – Would delist the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population of Grizzly Bears under the Endangered Species Act.
    • H.R. 1419 (Montana Grizzly Bears) – Would block funds for the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Ecosystem Restoration Plan.
Orangutan Bhima at the FOREST SCHOOL

Orangutan Bhima at the FOREST SCHOOL

In Conclusion: 

As science has continued to evolve over the decades, we’ve learned how vital it is to not just protect species from physical harm, which can occur intentionally through acts like hunting or unintentionally from chemicals used for pesticide control. Instead, we must take a holistic approach that considers their reliance on the environment they live in, the food they eat, and a multitude of other factors that impact their survival. Like humans, non-human animals require clean air and water, shelter and open space, and a myriad of other elements needed to not just survive, but to thrive in a manner that creates a healthy breeding population for the future.  

Sadly, the balance needed to achieve species stability has been threatened at an alarming and increasing rate from human activity resulting in the ongoing climate crisis and unprecedented rate of biodiversity loss across the planet, including 41% of ecosystems in the United States being at risk of range-wide collapse. Unfortunately, the scientific strength and enforcement ability of the ESA, which is desperately needed right now to face the current extinction crisis, have been undermined for decades by politics and the endless quest for profit.  

Bear Lelya at BEAR SANCTUARY Domazhyr

Celebrating the ESA on its 50th anniversary

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