Half of the recorded extinctions of mammals over the past 2,000 years have occurred in the most recent 50-year period. The Endangered Species Act is a law that was passed by Congress and signed by President Nixon in 1973. It is regarded as one of the most comprehensive wildlife conservation laws in the world. In 1973, 109 species were listed. Today, more than 1,000 species are listed.
Congress had enacted two similar laws—one in 1966 and another in 1969—but neither did more than create lists of vanishing wildlife species. This was no better than publishing a list of murder victims but doing nothing to catch the murderers. The Endangered Species Act in 1973, however, changed all that. It forbids people from trapping, harming, harassing, poisoning, wounding, capturing, hunting, collecting, importing, exporting, or in any other way harming any species of animal or plant whose continued existence is threatened. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the listing of land and freshwater species. The Natural Marine Fisheries Service is in charge of ocean species.
This act protects all species classified as threatened or endangered, whether they have commercial value (people want to buy, sell, and collect them) or not. It also forbids federal participation in projects that jeopardize listed species and calls for the protection of all habitat critical to listed species.
Under this law, "endangered" designates a species in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant part of its range. "Threatened" refers to species likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. The Fish and Wildlife Service also maintains a list of "candidate" species. These are species that have not yet been proposed for listing but which the service has enough information about to warrant proposing them for listing as endangered or threatened. The protection also extends to the preservation of the species' habitats. Assistance is provided to states and foreign governments to assure this protection.
The law's ultimate goal is to "recover" species so they no longer need protection under the Endangered Species Act. The law provides for recovery plans to be developed and describes the steps needed to restore a species to health. Public and private agencies, institutions, and scientists assist in the development and implementation of recovery plans.
The Endangered Species Act is the law that puts into effect u.S. participation in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—a 130-nation agreement designed to prevent species from becoming endangered or extinct because of international trade.
There are some exceptions to the protection provided by the Endangered Species Act. Natives of Alaska can hunt endangered animals for use as food or shelter. An endangered animal can also be killed if it threatens the life of a human or if it is too sick to survive.
In the Arctic, permafrost that used to last 200 days during the year 50 years ago now lasts only 80 days each year. As global warming causes habitats to shift, animals will be forced to adapt, move, or die. Defenders of Wildlife, an organization dedicated to preserving wildlife and their habitats, states that more than a million species could go extinct in the next 50 years if action is not taken now to stop global warming and protect wildlife.
Penguins are also facing difficult challenges as icebergs melt. In 2004, a 1,200-square mile (3,108-km2) iceberg trapped 3,000 nesting pairs of Adelie penguins on Cape Royds in Antarctica. The females, which normally had only a 1.25-mile (2-km) trip to the ocean for food now had to travel 112 miles (180 km) instead. Nearby, 50,000 penguin pairs on Cape Bird had to make a 60-mile (97-km) trip. These long excursions put all the penguins in peril; while the mothers are in search for food, the fathers must fast while they remain with the babies. If they have to fast for too long, they will abandon the chicks.
The waterfowl population of the prairie pothole region of the central United States and Canada is also at risk. Although this area accounts for only 10 percent of North American waterfowl breeding habitat, it is where 50 to 80 percent of all the continental duck production takes
place. According to the Defenders of Wildlife, climate models predict that half of the pothole ponds will disappear in the next 100 years. The ponds that remain will support only 40-50 percent of the bird population they do now. Under drought conditions, in addition to loss of habitat, the ducks will have less nesting success, increased infant mortality, and make fewer nesting attempts.
Desert bighorn sheep herds that inhabit the Sonoran, Mojave, and Great Basin deserts of the southwest United States are dwindling in number. Less than 100 exist, and they are dispersed across the entire range in sparsely vegetated areas. Reports by Defenders of Wildlife indicate that western temperatures have recently exceeded the 100-year average by 2-3°F (1.2-1.8°C). In addition, California's precipitation has declined 20 percent. Because of this, plants and water that the sheep rely on for survival are disappearing. A recent inventory indicates that only 30 of California's 60 bighorn groups remain. Those that are left face extinction because of habitat loss and genetic diversity.
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