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What is the Endangered Species Act of 1973?
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects animals and plants that the Secretary of Interior or marine species that the Secretary of Commerce lists as “threatened” or “endangered”. The Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Services administer (NMFSA) administer the ESA. The determination of whether a species is endangered or threatened is made “solely on basis of best scientific and commercial data available” without consideration of the cost of protection. A species is “endangered” if “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range”. A species is “threatened” if likely to become endangered in the “foreseeable future”. The Secretary must also designate a “critical habitat” for the endangered or threatened species. The secretary will take the “economic impact” and “other relevant impact” into consideration in making this designation.
Protections – The ESA provides the following protections for endangered or threatened wildlife:
• Federal Agency Action – The ESA prohibits any federal action that jeopardizes endangered or threatened species or results in the destruction or adverse modification of their critical habitat. Under these rules, no federal agency can authorize, fund or carry out any action that jeopardizes an endangered species. The ESA states that all federal agencies shall carry out programs for the conservation of endangered or threatened species. “Conserve” is defined as “use of all methods and procedures necessary to bring any endangered or threatened species to the point” where they do not need saving. A federal agency can only take actions that are “not likely to jeopardize a protected species”. The Endangered Species Committee is authorized to exempt certain agency actions from the “no jeopardy” requirements. Exemption requires a supermajority vote, finding that there are “no reasonable and prudent alternatives to the agency action”, and that benefits of the action “clearly outweigh” benefits of non-jeopardizing alternative courses of action. The ESA requires consultation between agency contemplating a project and the ESA administering agency to determine if the no jeopardy regime would be violated.
⁃ Note: The law authorizes civil actions against the Secretary for failure to perform non-discretionary duty.
• Private Actions – The ESA makes it unlawful for any person to “take” any listed species. “Taking” means to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to engage in any such conduct.” This is a slightly more lenient than the “no jeopardy” requirements since it only applies to endangered species (not threatened species). Also, private parties may apply for permits for actions that otherwise constitute violations of the law. The Secretary may issue permits for otherwise proscribed takings that are “incidental to the carrying out of an otherwise lawful activity or exemptions for scientific purposes”. As a condition of the incidental taking permit, the holder must submit a conservation plan to “minimize and mitigate” the impact of the taking. Usually, this involves a commitment to acquire and conserve some land to provide a suitable habitat for the species.
⁃ Note: Section 9 of the ESA prohibits any person from transporting or trading in any endangered species of fish or wildlife or from taking any such species with in the United States.
The ESA strictly prohibits considering the financial or economic impacts of implementing the act’s provisions. A review board can grant exemptions to the ESA for certain important federal projects, but not for private activities. The ESA requires recovery plans for species it protects.
• Discussion: How do you feel about the protections afforded under the Endangered Species Act? Do you feel like the restrictions are sufficient to achieve the results of the law? What do you think about the exemption from prohibitions on federal actions and private takings? Why do you think the private taking restrictions do not apply to threatened species? How do you feel about the granting of permits for private takings?
• Practice Question: ABC Corp is thinking of expanding its manufacturing footprint. It intends to clear cut about 200 acres of land beside its current plant to construct a new facility. ABC is aware that the forest is full of animals. What limitations might ABC face when attempting to clear the land?