The US Endangered Species Act

Protecting at-risk animals and plants from extinction

Endangered Species Day - May 17, 2024

Endangered Species Day is celebrated every year on the third Friday in May, encouraging people to learn about and take action to help endangered species. WWF highlights endangered wildlife every day, working to build awareness and partnerships with local communities, governments, businesses, and the rest of the world to take action to protect them.

The US Endangered Species Act (ESA) is our nation’s most effective law to protect at-risk species from extinction, with a stellar success rate: 99% of species listed on it have avoided extinction.

Passed with bipartisan support on Dec. 28, 1973, the law allows individuals and organizations to petition to have a species listed as endangered or threatened. These listing petitions undergo rigorous scientific evaluation and public review before a final decision is made on whether a species should be protected. The law requires protection for critical habitat areas and the development and implementation of recovery plans for listed species. It also allows for flexibility in its implementation, requiring coordination among federal, state, tribal, and local officials on efforts to prevent extinction.

Populations are monitored over time to determine whether a given species is recovering. When species are considered recovered, they are removed from the list. Viewed as the gold standard for conservation legislation, the ESA is one of the world's most effective laws for preventing and reversing the decline of endangered and threatened wildlife. In 2016, more listed species were found to be partially or completely recovered than in any previous year since the ESA became law.

The rebound of a species is a gradual process that requires a long-term commitment dependent on many factors such as habitat, food availability, reproduction rate, and climate. The longer a species remains listed, the more likely it is to be recovering. 

The ESA and Foreign Species

The ESA also supports the conservation of listed species outside of the US and is the law through which the US enforces the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). CITES is a global agreement between governments to follow rules to monitor, regulate, or ban international trade in species under threat and is a key tool in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade.

Foreign wildlife protected by the ESA receives benefits such as prohibition or regulation of their live or harvested trade across US borders, limitations on commercial activity that would affect their habitat, and increased funding for their conservation. The US is the world’s second-largest consumer market for wildlife and this law helps ensure that US citizens do not contribute to the decline of foreign endangered species. Because of its proven success, the ESA is used in many countries as a model to develop similar conservation legislation.


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