The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is officially an old man in the conservation world: It turned 50 in December, 2023. Since it was passed in 1973, it has become one of the most powerful tools to fight extinction in the United States. This piece of federal legislation provides protections and a recovery plan for at-risk species categorized as either “endangered” or “threatened.” Currently, it protects more than 1,600 plants and animals.
The ESA has helped save iconic species like the California condor and lesser-known species like the golden paintbrush flower. More than 60 plants and animals once considered “threatened” or “endangered” have recovered enough to be removed from the list. Another 60 have improved from “endangered” to “threatened” status.
But the Act isn’t perfect. Many say that it takes too long for at-risk species to receive protections. It can take years from when a species is officially recommended to when it is listed, wasting precious time while its population continues to fall. Due in part to these chronic listing delays, ecologist Erich Eberhard says that although the ESA has a good track record of keeping species from going extinct, it isn’t as effective at helping them recover. Only 3% of listed species have recovered enough for full removal from the list, according to a 2022 study he co-authored.
One possible solution could come from a proposed piece of legislation called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. This law, which was introduced in the U.S. Senate in March 2023, would provide more than $1 billion to states and tribes to help maintain healthy ecosystems and bolster protections for species listed at the state — not just federal — level. Such a law might make the Act’s next 50 years even stronger.