The Big Bounce Back

Magnificent megafauna mark 50 years of Endangered Species Act

Published December 28, 2023

Fifty years ago, on Dec. 28, 1973 – less than 10 days after President Nixon was subpoenaed to produce certain damning documents – he signed one of the most important pieces of legislation of his presidency: the Endangered Species Act, drafted with the aid of scientists and lawyers, and passed with strong bipartisan support. 

The Endangered Species Act obligated state and federal governments to protect all species threatened with extinction in the United States and outlying territories. Even today, it is still viewed as the gold standard of conservation legislation. As with most conservation efforts, the commitment was a long-term one that depended on habitat protection, reproductive rate data, food availability, and climate change factors. 

So there it was in its grand glory, written into the literal pages of history. But did the ESA actually deliver? Why, yes, yes it did. A 2019 study confirmed that since it was signed into law in 1973, the Endangered Species Act saved 99% of its protected wildlife… and some of those species are so iconic that it’s hard to imagine America without them.

Let’s take a look at some of the amazing species we still have happily flying, swimming, and running around us since the Act was passed. 

Bald eagle

Since 1782, the bald eagle has been the national bird of the U.S., with a front-and-center presence on almost everything related to America. In the mid-20th Century, the majestic bird was in danger of extinction due to habitat destruction, illegal hunting, and DDT contamination in the fish they eat. When the Endangered Species Act was signed, bald eagles were listed as endangered in 48 states.

By July 1995, the bald eagle population had recovered to the point that they were moved from “endangered” to “threatened” on the list. Twelve years later, they were doing so well – nearly 10,000 nesting pairs in the contiguous U.S. – that they were removed from the list entirely. The last bald eagle census, in 2021, turned up 71,400 pairs

American alligator 

Found in Southern wetlands, America’s only crocodilian was hunted close to extinction in the mid-20th Century, snatched up to make valuable gator-skin handbags. While they enjoyed some protections after appearing on the endangered species list in 1967, the ESA went further in prohibiting alligator hunting and protecting their habitats. By 1987, the species was considered “no longer biologically threatened or endangered,” and classified as “of least concern.”

In a recent interview with Mother Jones, one biologist said, “Alligators really are almost like a poster animal for the Endangered Species Act.” He reveals the (obvious) formula: “Stop killing them, protect their habitat, and they will come back.” 

Louisiana black bear

In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt went on a hunting trip on which he refused to kill a defenseless bear that had been tied to a tree. This led to a political cartoon in the Washington Post, and a clever shopkeeper’s creation of “Teddy’s Bear,” … and the rest is history. But while modern teddy bears are usually brownish, Teddy’s original bear was Louisiana black. 

By the 1980s, 80 percent of the Louisiana black bear’s habitat was wiped out, and by 1992 the bear was endangered-listed. But thanks to the implementation of effective species rehabilitation and management, aided by local agencies, the once-threatened bear was removed from the list again in 2016. 

… but it’s not all good news

Sadly, despite the obvious success in protecting many endangered and threatened animals in the U.S. the Endangered Species Act wasn’t able to protect some species. This year alone, 21 were delisted due to extinction, including the little Mariana fruit bat (Guam), the large Kauai thrush (HI), and the yellow-blossom pearly mussel (AL, TN). Protection-weakening measures such as this year’s Supreme Court decision scaling back the definition of the “waters of the United States” surely will not help.

“Federal protection came too late to reverse these species’ decline, and it’s a wake-up call on the importance of conserving imperiled species before it’s too late,” Fish & Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams said in a statement. “As we commemorate 50 years of the Endangered Species Act this year, we are reminded of the Act’s purpose to be a safety net that stops the journey toward extinction. The ultimate goal is to recover these species, so they no longer need the Act’s protection.”