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The Endangered Species Act & The World Conservation Strategy: Goals & Purposes

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  • 0:05 Species Extinction
  • 0:37 Why Is Species Extinction Bad?
  • 3:24 What Classifies a…
  • 5:53 After a Species Is Listed
  • 6:59 ESA Successes and Criticisms
  • 8:12 The World Conservation…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laura Enzor

Laura has a Master's degree in Biology and is working on her PhD in Biology. She specializes in teaching Human Physiology at USC.

In this lesson, you will learn about the Endangered Species Act, an environmental law that protects endangered species. You will also discover how the ESA works and how species are protected under it. Finally, you will learn how a World Conservation Strategy can help endangered and threatened species worldwide.

Species Extinction

The planet Earth is not static; it is constantly changing. Humans are responsible for a lot of those changes. We clear forests for land to build on, till the ground to grow crops for food and animals, and decimate acres of land so we can build roads and highways. One of the things that we don't tend to think of is where the animals and plants go when we destroy their habitat. Many of these species cannot simply migrate, or move to another area. Therefore, they go extinct, or cease to exist.

Why is Species Extinction Bad?

Species extinction is problematic because, if you remove one organism from an ecosystem, it changes the entire ecosystem. Ecosystems are delicately balanced; one small change drastically alters everything. Let's take a look at a quick example. Coral reefs are the perfect example of a balanced ecosystem. Corals and sponges, which are both animals, build the reef and create structure for fish.

Small fish, known as grazers, feed on the corals and sponges as well as algae. Examples of grazing fish are butterfly fish, parrotfish and damselfish. Large predators, such as sharks and eels, eat the grazing fish. The large predators drive the ecosystem by keeping all the other population numbers in check. This is called a top-down ecosystem. So, what happens when there are no more sharks?

In the absence of sharks, the grazing fish populations explode because there aren't any predators to keep the population numbers at a reasonable level. The increased number of grazing fish means there is more grazing upon the reef itself, and the corals and sponges die off, which means the reef is dead. So, where are the sharks going?

Shark populations are diminished mainly due to an over-fishing practice known as 'finning.' Large fishing vessels catch hundreds of sharks and cut off their fins in order to make shark fin soup. They throw the fin-less sharks back into the water where it dies because it cannot swim without its fins. Sharks are also caught as bycatch, or catching something you weren't intending to catch in large fishing nets. These fish need to swim in order to breathe, so when caught in a net, they quickly drown.

In order to prevent animals and plants from going extinct, the Endangered Species Act , or ESA, was enacted in 1973. The act was designed to protect species from going extinct as a 'consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.' The act's purpose is to protect species as well as 'the ecosystem on which they depend.' This means that organisms that are in danger of going extinct because of humans destroying their natural habitat for development need to be monitored, and their habitats need to be conserved.

The ESA is administered by two federal administrations, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA manages the marine, or seawater, species that are protected under the ESA, and FWS monitors the freshwater fish and all other species.

What Classifies a Species as 'Endangered?'

There are two main categories under the ESA: threatened and endangered. A threatened species is one that faces endangerment in the near future. An endangered species is one that is in danger of becoming extinct in the near future. Under the ESA, a species is classified as 'endangered' if it meets one of the following criteria:

  1. There is a current or possible threat of modification or destruction to the habitat of the species.
  2. The species has been over-used for scientific, educational, commercial or recreational purposes. This typically means the species has been over-hunted or over-fished. In some cases, scientists collect far too many individuals of a species for research, and the populations cannot bounce back.
  3. The population numbers of the species are declining due to disease or predation.
  4. There is no or inadequate regulation of the species. This means that we have no true idea of how many individuals exist; we just know that the population numbers are declining and need to be monitored.
  5. There are other natural or man-made factors affecting its continued existence. A perfect example of this is the after-effects of hurricanes or tornadoes. These natural disasters are quite destructive, and species other than humans are affected by that destruction.

After a species is put on a list to be considered as threatened or endangered, there is a 90-day waiting period where investigations are made to determine if the species is indeed in danger of going extinct or becoming endangered. Many factors are taken into account, such as habitat, economic and educational importance and money that would be required to conserve the species.

If the species is found to be in need of protection from the ESA, a one-year study is performed, which is then followed by a hearing to vote on the species' placement on the Endangered Species List. If the species is granted protection under the ESA, the public is notified in the area where the species resides. Remember that if a species is granted protection under the ESA, so is its habitat. This can have large effects on farmers, miners and loggers, who all work in areas with hundreds of species. So, you can see that getting an animal listed as 'endangered' or 'threatened' is quite a process!

After a Species is Listed

After an organism is put on the Endangered Species List, the FWS and NOAA are responsible for creating a Species Recovery Plan: in short, how they are going to keep the species from going extinct, and how they are planning on increasing the population number. These plans typically involve labeling a habitat as a 'protected area,' so the species can survive in their native environment and can also include breeding programs through captive individuals of endangered species in zoos. Sand dunes are a great example of a protected area. Green turtles are listed as endangered, so the sand dunes in which they lay their eggs are considered a protected area.

There are also large penalties for those who violate the Endangered Species Act. People who traffic, or capture, wound or kill an endangered or threatened species for the purpose of selling it, can receive a fine of $50,000 and up to one year in jail. There can also be up to a $25,000 fine per violation of the ESA.

ESA Successes

Since the ESA's enactment in the 1970s, hundreds of species of plant and animal have been listed as threatened or endangered. Once on the list, the protection of the ESA can make it possible for a species to re-populate, and either be de-listed or removed from the Endangered Species List entirely.

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