President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law on December 28, 1973 as a way to protect native plants and animals from extinction. The law was basically an update of the 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act, which officially listed endangered species and authorized government funds to purchase secure habitat. The 1973 law went further, providing physical protection to fish, animals and plants, as well as their ecosystems. It has proven successful, but there are now questions as to whether or not it's the right approach.
The Endangered Species Act is enforced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These two agencies are responsible for the identification and protection of endangered and threatened species, and also for penalizing those who illegally threaten or harm the listed populations.
A species may be listed if the population is threatened by habitat loss, predation, disease, or other man-made factors, and the ecosystem in which that species lives is deemed "critical habitat" and receives separate but related protection under the law.
The program has worked, and there are a few especially dramatic success stories. The bald eagle is a big one - our national symbol was down to 400 breeding pairs in the 1960s, but the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act allowed it to rebound to over 7,000 current breeding pairs. The gray wolf, grizzly bear, Florida panther and peregrine falcon are also experiencing benefits from federal protection, although they have a long way to go to match the bald eagle's success.
Clearly, this set of laws has had its intended effect. Nobody wants anything to go extinct, and most people are more than happy to make the accommodation necessary to comply. But what happens when those accommodations - or the endangered species themselves - infringe on the rights of citizens? It happens more often than you might think.
In many areas, critical habitats are found mostly on private lands. When that land is a farm, the farmer may be prevented from disturbing the soil, planting non-native vegetation, or using machinery - all of which prevent him from planting and harvesting his crops. Suddenly he's left with no income, and a parcel of land that cannot be worked. So yes, that endangered grasshopper may be doing okay, but the farmer and his family may go hungry.
The solution to this problem becomes ugly for everyone involved. When the farmer finds an endangered species on his property, instead of alerting the FWS, he may go to extraordinary lengths to make his land as unattractive to the creature as possible. The grasshoppers move out, and the farmer can continue with his crops. So the endangered species loses a little bit more habitat. Multiply that same scenario by the hundreds of farms where the grasshopper may have appeared, and soon there is no critical habitat left, leaving the creature at a much higher risk of extinction.
Or, take the farmer with livestock. The gray wolves in his state have enjoyed a gradual population resurgence thanks to Endangered Species Act protection, but now he's finding half-eaten goats and spooked cows on his property. Those animals are his livelihood, and any loss translates into a loss of income. Instead of notifying the FWS the next time he spots a wolf, he shoots it and buries it, keeping the secret forever. This way his property is not designated critical habitat, and can continue his farm operations without having to uproot his livestock and let his fields return to a wild state, which usually comes with a crippling financial cost. The wolves lost another potential breeder, and the use of suitable habitat.
The Bigger Picture
In both cases, the endangered species clearly came out the loser - but this isn't hunting for sport. Both farmers were forced into untenable situations by the proximity of wildlife to their farms, and just writing laws about it isn't the solution. Some species-human interaction will always occur only because we all have to share this little blue marble we call home. But the bigger picture is the overall destruction of the greater ecosystem that caused the food shortage in the wild places, which led the species to more populated areas. Temperature change might have led to altered migration patterns, and droughts or floods may have destroyed natural habitats forever.
Just as sure as humans are encroaching on wild areas, the inhabitants of those areas are slowly being forced to encroach on our turf. It rarely works out well for either party in the end, and regulating habitat isn't the only answer. A full about-face in the way we use and regard our planet is what it takes, with an all-encompassing strategy to reduce climate change, increase the use of renewable resources, produce less waste and the myriad of other things that may make the planet whole again someday. Until we begin treating our planet holistically, we will continue to lose species, regardless of the laws meant to protect them.