Endangered Species

America Leads the World in Preventing the Extinction of Species

Animal Welfare Institute

Photo by Don Pfitzer/
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Click on picture to view it full size
Our nation’s symbol, the American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was on the brink of extinction when the first Endangered Species Act was passed in 1967. Thanks to the protection afforded by the Act, law enforcement, and public education this magnificent bird has now rebounded to the point where in June 1994, all populations except the extreme southwestern were transferred from the endangered to the threatened species list.

Endangered Species Act an Economic and Medical Asset

US legislation protecting wildlife and the environment is the finest in the world. It is important that our nation maintain this leadership of which every American can be justifiably proud. In 1973, Congress enacted a comprehensive, model Endangered Species Act (ESA). This legislation has been extremely effective in saving wildlife and plant species in danger of extinction.
Non-consumptive Use of Wildlife — A Fiscal Boon

The economic benefits of preserving species and their environments are numerous. In 1991, whalewatching in the US brought an estimated $37.5 million in direct revenue while an other $155.5 million was earned by associated businesses (WDCS 1991). In Southern New England alone, tourists pay more than $21 million each year to visit whales in their natural environment (Hoyt 1994). Humpback, Fin, and Minke Whales frequent these waters, as well as the occasional Orca and Pilot Whale. One might even be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.

William Rossiter
Whalewatching, one example of the non-consumptive use of
wildlife, earns millions of dollars for both the east and west coasts

The California Gray Whale, now removed from the endangered species list, is the star of the West Coast’s whalewatching industry. Commercial whalewatching vessels also serve as platforms for educational outreach and scientific research. The Endangered Species Act was key to protecting the whales that now support an industry pouring millions into our coastal economics.

Agriculture Dependent on Wild Plants & Animals

American agriculture’s debt to wild plants is estimated at $1 billion per year (Myers 1983). All of our food comes from species of plants and animals that were once wild. Cultivated plant species become prey to diseases, fungus or insect attack. When Southern cornleaf blight attacked crops in 1970, losses totaled almost $1 billion (Fenyvesi 1995). The disease was stopped when an old, resistant corn species was found and bred into a new hybrid (Fenyvesi 1995). Currently, botanists are collecting seeds of wild potatoes in an attempt to prevent a variant of the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840s from ruining crops in the US. Food losses to insects in the US amount to at least $5 billion per year, and hundreds of insects have become resistant to a wide spectrum of pesticides (Myers 1983). Species capable of saving agricultural crops and billions of dollars for American farmers will be lost without protection from the ESA. Many of these ancestor plants and insect predators are highly endangered and urgently need to be maintained in their native habitats. The ESA has identified many of these species and preserved them from extinction.

Life-saving Medicine from Rare Species

Worldwide, medications derived from plants are worth $40 billion annually (Lean and Hinrichsen 1994). Most of our medicines came originally from wild plants, including major painkillers, birth-control agents, and malaria drugs. Quinine, digitalis, and morphine all come from plants. According to a study funded by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Bank, more than 40 percent of all prescriptions in the US still depend on natural sources (Swaminathan 1990). Only a small percentage of wild plants have been tested for medicinal value. In some cases, plants that might have disappeared altogether were found to be medical treasures. The Madagascar Periwinkle is a small flowering plant that grows in a country that has lost more than 80 percent of its vegetation. Two potent compounds found in this plant have proven effective in the treatment of Hodgkins’ Disease and produce a 99 percent remission in patients with acute lymphocytic leukemia (Myers 1983). Sales of these two drugs exceed $180 million a year (Wilson 1992).

The purple foxglove is a major source
of digitalis, a heart stimulant.

Another species that could have slipped into extinction is the Pacific Yew. Traditionally considered a “trash plant” by foresters in the Pacific Northwest, this evergreen has been cleared to make way for plant species that are profitable to the timber industry. Research in the past few years revealed that the Pacific Yew contains compounds effective in treating ovarian and other cancers (Middleton 1992). Synthesis of these chemicals will save thousands of lives and be worth millions of dollars.

The Pacific Yew grows in old-growth forest, home of the Spotted Owl. This threatened bird’s addition to the ESA provoked a bitter controversy between loggers and conservationists. After a flurry of lawsuits from both sides, logging limits were implemented. In spite of dire predictions from lumber companies that 100,000 jobs would be lost as a result of the reduction in logging, employment in Oregon, the heart of the Spotted Owl’s habitat, has increased (Egan 1994). An influx of technology firms and retraining of loggers through government programs has brought new higher paying jobs to Oregon, resulting in the highest employment rate in a generation (Egan 1994). The ESA is directly responsible for saving both the Pacific Yew and the Spotted Owl through habitat protection.

When a species’ habitat is preserved, an entire ecosystem may benefit. That ecosystem may harbor
other species valuable to medicine or perform functions essential to the health of the environment. For instance, old growth forests keep streams and rivers clear from erosion, and their slow release of water keeps rivers flowing throughout the longest droughts (Middleton 1992). Salmon find the rivers of old growth forests ideal for spawning, where logging has ruined stream banks and caused erosion, salmon have disappeared. The salmon species of the Pacific Northwest were once an extremely valuable economic asset, but today several species of salmon are approaching extinction in major part due to logging.

George B. Kelez/US Fish and Wildlife Service
Salmon stocks have plummeted in the lower 48 states
as streams became degraded by logging operations.

Their Loss is Our Loss

Economic interests that wish to weaken the ESA argue that the Act unreasonably interferes with government and private projects and infringes on the constitutional rights of individuals. In truth, however, few conflicts have arisen and the majority of these have been settled to the satisfaction of all. By September 1994, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has issued 36 permits for “Habitat Conservation Plans” with 150 more in process (Fish and Wildlife Service 1995). These agreements between the government and private landowners permit activities normally restricted under the ESA as long as adequate safeguards to protect endangered species are adopted. Many involve financial benefit to landowners (Fish and Wildlife Service 1995). For example, those who donate land inhabited by endangered species to a nonprofit organization or to the federal government receive a tax deduction.

To consider the ESA an economic detriment to this country is folly. This Act, a major benefit for agriculture and medicine and a means of preserving the precious genetic heritage of this country, must be protected. In the words of Edward 0. Wilson of Harvard University, “We have inherited a treasure house but are throwing out a great many of the pieces without so much as looking at them” (Myers 1983). Congress will set our course by choosing either to protect this country’s natural heritage or contribute to its destruction for the sake of short-term commercial gain. We are at a crossroads.
The Endangered Species Act’s Role in Preserving Species

The revivals of the California Condor and the Black Footed Ferret epitomize the success of the Endangered Species Act in making it possible for native species to recover from near-extinction.

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)
This majestic bird of prey, North America’s largest, once soared over most of the continent. Its bones have been found among Florida’s, Pleistocene fossils. The California Condor’s range has declined since Lewis and Clark saw them frequently along the Columbia River in Washington State. They were also seen along the California coast south to Baja California, Mexico and east to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. With their 10-foot wing spans, the birds were easy targets. Hundreds were shot during the 19th century. In the late 1800s, when word spread that the Condors were approaching extinction, egg and specimen collectors preyed on the remaining birds. Between 1881 and 1910, 288 birds were killed as museum specimens. By the turn of the century, only a few hundred birds remained, and by 1939 just 60 were left (Greenway 1967). In spite of legal protection and the establishment of the Sespe Condor Refuge, the birds’ decline continued. California Condors were on the verge of extinction as a result of hunting, accidental trapping and poisoning and loss of grassland habitat to agriculture.

Fred Sibley/US Fish and Wildlife Service
The California Condor population, once reduced to 9 birds,
has rebounded thanks to the Endangered Species Act.

By 1985, only nine birds existed (Bergman 1990). The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), with funding under the Endangered Species Act, chose to capture the remaining wild birds. The decision to remove all Condors from the wild turned out to be the only way to preserve the species, since the birds’ wide-ranging behavior exposed them to countless perils that were beyond the control of FWS. To the amazement of many, the captive program succeeded. By July 1994, 85 California Condors resided in captive facilities where they had been successfully bred (Collar et al. 1994). Four captive bred birds survived reintroduction into the wild in 1992. For a species that does not breed until the age of six, lays only one egg and whose chicks remain flightless and dependent on their parents for two years (Greenway 1967), this is a truly amazing recovery.

The California Condor is an ancient species whose superbly aerodynamic flight makes the most sophisticated man-made aircraft look clumsy by comparison. As a scavenger, the Condor plays an important role in the environment. Without the Endangered Species Act and an eleventh hour rescue by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Condor would almost certainly be extinct.

Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes)
The Endangered Species Act is the primary force behind the continuing recovery of the Black-footed Ferret. Always a rare species, the Black-footed Ferret preyed on prairie dogs in the vast grasslands that once covered central North America west of the Mississippi River. Prairie dog towns covered some 98 million acres; one prairie dog town in the Texas Panhandle covered some 25,000 square miles. Prior to the 19th century, prairie dogs may have numbered five billion (DeBlieu 1993). Prompted by complaints from cattlemen and ranchers, the government sponsored the destruction of prairie dog towns beginning in 1900. Because poisoning was the main method of killing, ferrets were also poisoned when they fed on the dead prairie dogs. By the mid 20th century, fewer than 100 Black-footed Ferrets had ever been seen. By the 1970s, all but two percent of the prairie dog population had been poisoned, and the Black- footed Ferret and two species of prairie dogs — the Utah and Mexican Black-tailed — were exceedingly endangered.

Luther C. Goldman/ US Fish and Wildlife Service
Black-footed ferrets are on the rebound.
These two peer from a prairie dog hole.

No ferrets were seen between 1953 and the early 1960s, when the Fish and Wildlife Service considered declaring the species extinct. Then, in 1964, a small population was discovered in Mellette County, South Dakota. No study of this elusive predator had ever been undertaken, and the exciting discovery produced much information about the species’ breeding and life history. Unfortunately, the South Dakota Black-footed Ferrets died out, apparently as a result of continued rodent poisoning in the area. The captive animals kept at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center also died off by 1979.

The chance recognition of a dead Black-footed Ferret by a Wyoming taxidermist in 1981 resulted in rediscovery of this species on a ranch. Unfortunately, most of the wild population disappeared within a few years. Of the 127 ferrets discovered, the majority apparently died from canine distemper (Godbey and Biggins 1994). Eighteen ferrets were taken into captivity. The captive ferret population rose to 118 animals by September 1989 (DeBlieu 1993) and to 250 breeding adults by 1994 (Godbey and Biggins 1994), thanks to the efforts of the state of Wyoming and oversight by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Reintroduction of the Black-footed ferret has been difficult. Poisoning of prairie dogs still continues, often under government auspices. Scientists recommended that all government poisoning on public land be halted and subsidies be offered to ranchers who do not kill prairie dogs (DeBlieu 1993). After much research, a release site was located, and, in 1991, 49 ferrets were released north of Laramie, Wyoming. By the next spring, two of the females had produced litters (DeBlieu 1993). In 1993, more Black-footed Ferrets were released at a national wildlife refuge in Montana. In 1994, the species was returned to South Dakota. The recovery programs and associated education campaigns have been conducted with the cooperation of state, federal, local and private concerns.

Other Endangered Species Successes

The following status reports were derived from 1994 issues of the Endangered Species Technical Bulletin, a publication of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Bald Eagles underwent a catastrophic decline after the introduction of DDT and other pesticides that interfered with the birds’ reproductive systems. In 1963, only 417 nesting pairs remained south of Alaska. The Bald Eagle was listed in the first Endangered Species Act in 1967. In 1972, DDT was banned. Public education and strong law enforcement over the next decades aided the species’ recovery. Today there are more than 4,000 nesting pairs and five to six thousand juvenile birds. On June 30, 1994, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that all but the southwestern populations be reclassified as threatened. Mollie Beattie, Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, announced the return of this magnificent bird by releasing Hope, an injured Bald Eagle who had been rehabilitated. She said, “The eagle’s recovery is a tribute to the success of the Endangered Species Act and other conservation laws and to the selfless efforts of the many, many people who have worked so hard to bring the eagle back from the brink of extinction.”

Washington Post photo by James M. Thresher
Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service
Mollie Beattie and Hope as she takes wing.

Siler Pincushion Cactus (Pediocactus sileri)
This rare cactus was downlisted from endangered to threatened in 1993 because of increases in its
population size and distribution.

Virginia Big-eared Bat (Plecotus townsendii virginianus)
Since the Virginia Big-eared Bat’s listing in 1979, populations have increased from a low of 1,300 to over 13,000 in West Virginia and North Carolina. Gates placed at nesting caves prevent vandals and others from entering the caves and disturbing the bats.

Red Wolf (Canis rufus)
In 1973, only 100 red wolves remained after predator control programs and hybridization with coyotes decimated this unique American canid. Like the California Condor and Black-footed Ferret, this species became extinct in the wild. Fourteen captured wolves formed the nucleus of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s captive-breeding colony. By 1993, more than 233 animals resided in 31 breeding facilities. Several successful releases into the wild have taken place in North Carolina. Between 46 and 60 animals now survive and are breeding in the wild. Without the Fish and Wildlife Service’s breeding and release program, the Red Wolf would be extinct.

Curtis Carley/US Fish and Wildlife Service
After captive breeding by the Fish and Wildlife Service,
Red Wolves have been released and are reproducing in the wild.

Heller’s Blazing Star (Liatris helleri)
Only seven wild populations of this North Carolina plant remain. With Fish and Wildlife Service funding, 3,000 seedlings have been returned to their cliffside habitat.

Least Bell’s Vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus)
New sightings of this endangered southern California bird indicate that it is recovering and recolonizing its previous habitat. In Riverside County, 150 vireo pairs were seen in 1994, while only 9 pairs were recorded in 1986. Populations elsewhere have also increased. Habitat preservation and restoration and control of the parasitic cowbird have been crucial to the recovery of the Least Bell’s Vireo.

S. Maslowski/US Fish and Wildlife Service
Habitat destruction was the main culprit behind the
decline of the now recovering Least Bell’s Vireo.

California Gray Whale (Eschrictius robustus)
The North Pacific population of the Gray Whale was removed from the endangered species list after its population increased from fewer than 10,000 in the 1930s to 21,000 in 1994. The present population is thought to be equal to pre-whaling numbers. Two laws brought this species back from near-extinction — The Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Oregon Silverspot Butterfly (Speyeria zerene hippolyta)
This butterfly, native to marine grasslands lining the Pacific northwest coast of Oregon and Washington, is threatened by habitat loss through development and growth of scrubland. The female Silverspot lays her eggs on or near blue violets, which are the sole food for the larvae. The Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon, where most of the remaining butterflies are found, has restored hundreds of acres of habitat in cooperation with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The species is now on its way to recovery.

Foreign Species
The Endangered Species Act also regulates the importation and exportation of endangered and threatened species that are native to other countries. The Act listed 535 non-indigenous species as of January 1, 1995. Included in the list are Leopards, Tigers and rhinoceroses, the great whales, Andean Condors, Harpy Eagles, many parrot species, Resplendent Quetzals, all sea turtles, numerous tortoises, caimans, crocodiles, iguanas, fish, invertebrates and plants. Mammals comprise the majority of non-indigenous species — 252 endangered and 22 threatened. A permit must be obtained from the Fish and Wildlife Service prior to importation of a listed species or any parts or products derived from them. Permits are issued only for purposes of scientific research or to enhance survival of the species. Permits are not granted for purely commercial activity. For example, imports of spotted cat skins by the fur industry are not permitted. These listings have protected many endangered species, but illegal imports continue despite risk of severe penalties, including jail sentences. Thousands of items are confiscated by Fish and Wildlife Service agents each year. Stuffed sea turtles, coats made from the pelts of endangered animals and taxidermy specimens are among the items often purchased by tourists. Items destined for the traditional Chinese medicine trade, such as Tiger bones and powdered rhinoceros horn, are brought in by smugglers.

Hollingsworth/US Fish and Wildlife Service
US Fish and Wildlife and Customs Agents seize thousands
of illegally imported specimens each year.

Interpol estimates that the international illegal trade in wildlife exceeded $6 billion in 1994, second only to the drug trade in profit margins for black market commerce. In fact, wildlife trading is increasingly linked with drug trading and other forms of organized crime. The reason is simple: profits are very high and wildlife enforcement is very weak. The mark-up price of a rare bird caught in the wilds of South America, rivals the retail price of cocaine by the time both make their way to the streets of Miami. This has attracted the attention of criminal syndicates who are looking for new ways to make money as well as new channels to smuggle their other contraband in and out of the United States. Packets of cocaine have been sewn into boa constrictors (Galster et al. 1994) and hidden in polar bear hides. Heroin has been found in tiger skin rugs. The need for a strong ESA has never been greater.

Departed and Fading North American Wildlife

Since 1600 at least 87 species of animals-from mammals to invertebrates — and 90 species of plants have become extinct in North America (Prance 1990, WCMC 1994). The 26 extinct vertebrate species have left obvious ecological vacuums. The disappearance of species from parts of their ranges, such as the loss of the Grey Wolf from most of North America, has also had important biological consequences. The following table dramatically depicts the continued threat to North American Wildlife.

As past extinctions have shown, wildlife conservation on a species-by-species basis is not enough. Our ability to maintain healthy ecosystems is dependent on an accurate understanding of the interconnection between all species. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Biological Survey, conducted by 1,700 scientists and natural resource specialists, is the first coordinated effort to assess and evaluate the health of species and ecosystems in the US. The Survey’s findings will aid in the listing and delisting of endangered and threatened animals and plants under the ESA.

Increase in Bird Extinctions an Ill Omen

Because birds are fairly representative of vertebrate species in terms of their rates of extinction, they are considered keen indicators of the planet’s health. Since 1600, some 121 bird species have become extinct. The rise in the rate of extinction becomes dramatic when one analyzes the incidence over 50-year periods. Between 1600 and 1649, only four species became extinct. In the next fifty-year period, 11 species were lost. In the 19th century, extinctions rose dramatically with 41 species lost. In the first half of the 20th century, 37 species have disappeared, almost as many as in the entire 19th century. Should the accelerated rate of extinction continue, one bird species will be lost every year by the year 2000.

Island species have been more vulnerable than mainland species because they occupy limited habitats and because many are — or were — flightless, making it difficult for them to flee from human hunters or adjust to changes in their environments. Until recently, about 7 5 % of bird extinctions took place on islands. Undoubtedly, more extinctions would have occurred on mainland’s if not for the large range of most mainland birds, which enables them to sustain local extinctions and still survive. These avian extinctions represent a great biological loss since many of these species were highly unusual and were not closely related to any species still in existence. Consider that the tallest bird ever to have lived on earth, New Zealand’s Giant Moa, and the heaviest bird, the Great Elephant bird of Madagascar, became extinct just since 1600, not in prehistoric times. The only known bird species in which males and females had different sized and shaped beaks, the Huia of New Zealand, became extinct early in the 20th century. The Passenger Pigeon is another casualty, along with the Northern Hemisphere’s only penguin-like bird, the Great Auk. In each case, the birds were victims of overhunting by humans. Other causes of bird extinctions include introduced disease, habitat destruction and introduction of non-indigenous animals such as livestock, rats and dogs. The loss of habitat, almost always a result of human interference, is now emerging as the major threat to birds, although introduction of non-indigenous species, overhunting and capture for the commercial pet trade continue to represent major dangers.

We have seen biological systems collapse in the past. Central Madagascar, once a verdant paradise, is now a moonscape. The Mediterranean was once surrounded by forests, but today much of the land is barren and sterile. Our failure to understand and respect our natural environment and preserve the rich array of animal and plant life is suicidal. The loss of species diversity is endangering our own existence by eliminating our life support system. Extinctions, past and impending, are warning flags, signaling an emergency that threatens all life on earth.

Photo by Len Rue Jr.
Click on picture to view it full size
More than 50,000 Grizzly Bears (Ursus arctos) once roamed the lower 48 states, but now only Alaska sustains a robust population. The Grizzly’s precipitous decline was slowed when the bears were listed as a threatened species outside of Alaska in 1975.


Bergman, C. 1990. Wild Echoes. Encounters with the Most Endangered Animals in North America. Alaska Northwest Books, Anchorage.

Collar, N.J., M.F. Crosby and A.J. Stattersfield. 1994. Birds to Watch 2. The World List of Threatened Birds. Bird Life International, UK.

DeBlieu, Jan. 1993. Meant to be Wild. The Struggle to Save Endangered Species Through Captive Breeding. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado.

Egan, T. 1994. Oregon, Foiling Forecasters, Thrives as It Protects Owls. New York Times, Oct. 19, 1994, page Al.

Fenyvesi, Charles. 1995. The race to beat back crop killers. U.S. News & World Report, April 10, 1995, page 61-2.

Fish and Wildlife Service. 1995. Endangered Species Bulletin. Vol. XX, No. 1, Jan/Feb.

Galster, S., et al. 1994. Crimes Against Nature. Endangered Species Project, San Francisco.

Godbey, J. and D. Biggins. 1994. Recovery of the Black-footed Ferret: Looking Back, Looking Forward. Endangered Species Technical Bulletin (USFWS) Vol. XIX, No. 1, pages 10, 13. Jan./Feb.

Greenway, J. 1967. Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World. Dover, New York.

Hoyt, Erich. 1994. Whale Watching and the Community: The Way Forward. Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Bath, UK.

Lean, G. and D. Hinrichsen. 1994. Atlas of the Environment. Harper Perennial, NY.

Middleton, D. 1992. Ancient Forests: A Celebration of North America’s Old Growth Wilderness. Chronicle Book, San Francisco.

Myers, N. 1983. A Wealth of Wild Species. Storehouse for Human Welfare. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.

Prance G.T. 1990.Flora. In: The Earth as Transformed by Human Action. Ed. by B.L. Turner et al. Cambridge University Press.

Swarninathan, M.S. 1990. Foreword. In: Conserving the World’s Biological Diversity. Ed. by J.A. McNeely et al.

International Union for the Conservation of Nature, The World Bank, World Resources Institute, Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund.

WCMC (World Conservation Monitoring Centre). 1994. 1994 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Berne, Switzerland.

WDCS (Whale and Dolphin Conservation Center). 1991. personal communication.

Wilson, E.O. 1992. The Diversity of Life. W.W. Norton & Co., NY.

Useful Web Resources

    Published by the Animal Welfare Institute
    P.O. Box 3650
    Washington DC 20007