The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a United States law, passed in 1973. Its purpose is to conserve threatened and endangered animals and plants and the ecosystems on which they depend. The ESA is regarded as one of the strongest environmental laws in the world.
Species in need of conservation measures are placed on one of two lists: "endangered," in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant part of its normal range; or "threatened," likely to become an endangered species in the foreseeable future.
Two federal agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), are in charge of listing species, preparing plans to help them recover, and enforcing the law. The ESA?s goal is recovery of all listed species, to the point where they are no longer in need of special protection.
The law prohibits "taking" a listed species. "Take," as defined in the ESA includes kill, shoot, wound, hunt, capture, harm, and harass. Court decisions have held that destroying habitat which injures or kills a species is also included. The law provides for both civil and criminal penalties for violations.
The ESA has become controversial because it sometimes results in restrictions on commercial development or other economic activities to protect species or their habitat. Congress has been considering amendments to the law since 1992, but political leaders have been unable to agree on what changes should be made.
As of mid-1996, there were 960 domestic species (those occurring in the United States) on the threatened and endangered lists, over half of them plants.