The Endangered Species Act

In 1973 Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to "provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species depend may be conserved, and to provide a program for the conservation of these species." Since the passage of this landmark law, more than 1,000 plant and animal species have been added to the endangered species list.

A species is listed as endangered if it is "in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range," or as threatened if it is "likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range." The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is responsible for protection of land-based species, which form the majority of listed species. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), part of the Department of Commerce, is responsible for protection of marine species including marine mammals and fish that migrate from the sea to spawn in rivers, such as salmon.

Endangered Species and Private Property Rights

The ESAís broad application to private individuals and companies and to private land is what makes it so controversial.† More than 80 percent of all species listed under the ESA depend on private lands for some part of their habitat.† The ESA prohibits both government agencies and private citizens from engaging in any activity that kills or harms listed species or any activity that destroys their habitat.† Under the sole exception to this prohibition, a private landowner may obtain a permit to take a listed species or its habitat in the course of an "otherwise lawful activity," such as development or timber cutting, by submitting a Habitat Conservation Plan, or HCP. The HCP must outline steps that the landowner will take to minimize and mitigate the impacts of the permitted take on listed species.

ESA proponents believe the Act should be strengthened to better promote recovery of listed species on both public and private lands.† Supporters also believe that the federal government has gone too far in its efforts to placate industry critics.† For example, in an effort to silence critics of the ESA, the USFWS and NMFS have greatly expanded their use of HCP's in recent years.† Both agencies view HCPís as a positive way to involve private landowners in the conservation of endangered species habitat.† The number of approved plans has grown from fewer than 20 in 1992 to nearly 300 today.† Many of the more recent plans cover large areas and large numbers of species, and may be in effect for many years.† For example, an HCP approved for a timber company in Washington state covers 170,000 acres, nearly 200 listed and unlisted species, and will last for 100 years.

The rapid growth in the number and acreage of HCPís has led to intense scrutiny from industry, scientists and the environmental community.† A number of environmental groups have released reports critical of the program, and a study released in early 1999 by the American Institute of Biological Sciences found that many HCPís are based on inadequate scientific information, lack sufficient funding and will not adequately monitor their impact on endangered species.†

Congress and the ESA

Recently, the debate over the ESA has become highly polarized.† Critics of the ESA have found a number of champions in Congress who have successfully worked to block reauthorization of the Act, and who have introduced bills to weaken ESA impacts on private lands and private industry.† At the same time, ESA supporters have introduced a bill in the House that would strengthen the Act.† While the bill has attracted co-sponsors, there has currently been little progress toward a vote.

One potential area of compromise has emerged in the form of landowner incentives.† Incentives allow property owners to receive direct grants or tax breaks if they agree to set aside and manage habitat for the benefit of endangered and threatened species.† For example, the Department of Interior has launched a small pilot program to provide grants to landowners who manage their land for endangered species.† Landowner incentives are supported by moderate interests on both sides of the ESA debate, and have led to a number of legislative proposals.†† However, these programs and legislative proposals have not attracted the support of more extreme interests.

What You Can Do

For more information on endangered species issues and what you can do to help, check out these Web sites:



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