Breath of Clarity

Review of Key Environmental Laws

When the Lacey Act was passed in 1900, it became the first federal law protecting wildlife (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2020). It enforces civil and criminal penalties for the illegal trade of animals and plants (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2020). This was the first statement by the Supreme Court that the state ownership doctrine actually precluded the federal government in making wildlife regulations (Sparling 2014). It regulates the import of any species protected by domestic law and prevents the spread of invasive, or non-native, species (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2020). Eventually, it grew to regulate the import of any species protected by international law.

The Endangered Species Preservation Act was originally enacted by Congress in 1966 to list declining species as endangered and direct the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Defense to protect the listed species and their habitats (Sparling 2014). The FWS was also directed to purchase land for the protection of endangered species. The amendments of 1969 included a provision to recognize internationally endangered species (Sparling 2014). The revisions also included other vertebrates besides fish, birds, and mammals and provided the first federal protection for amphibians and reptiles. In 1973, Congress greatly modified the law into the Endangered Species Act. This new law and its amendments placed all species under the oversight of the FWS or, in some cases, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The ESA went on to establish specific safeguards for threatened species which is defined as those likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future (Sparling 2014). Critical habitat was also formally defined by the ESA to be the portion of an area occupied by a listed species (Sparling 2014). The restrictions placed by the ESA have become the basis for legal action (Sparling 2014). The section dealing with critical habitat has been a source of contention (Sparling 2014). If a proposed activity involves federal loans, backing or permits, it could be subject to review by the FWS or NMFS which can prohibit federal involvement if the project jeopardizes the habitat of the listed species (Sparling 2014). The critical habitat provision can become problematic to land developers and private businesses, as well.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 established wastewater standards and water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters, set controls on point source pollution and gave the lead for clean water regulation to the federal government (Sparling 2014). The CWA influences contemporary natural resource management by opening up the conversation about the definition of navigable waters. Over the years, the act protected fish and wildlife through regulations on the minimum dissolved oxygen concentrations in natural waters and by recognizing wildlife in oil spills or dumping of dredged materials (Sparling 2014).

Critics of the ESA often point to the few species that have actually been delisted and to the cost per species. They are frustrated species are not being delisted, but delisting is a complex process that can take many generations of population growth, and insufficient time may have elapsed since the passing of the ESA for a substantial number of species that have improved sufficiently to be delisted (Sparling 2014). Still, the number of species that have improved in their status from endangered to threatened, 20 species, exceeds the number that have degraded their status from threatened to endangered, 7 species, by nearly three times (Sparling 2014). The cost per species is extremely variable. The limited funds devoted to fulfilling the mission of the ESA are frequently misallocated (CBS News 2019). In 2011, the top 10 listed species received $448.8 million which was 35% of total state and federal expenditures (Sparling 2014). In contrast, 43 species had $1000 or less spent on them during 2011. If endangered or threatened, it definitely helps if a species is cute, majestic or economically valuable (CBS News 2019). Considering the strange creatures or animals having a conflict with humans are those who get the most attention and funding, the decision regarding which species to save is not based upon roles in the ecosystem community.

Ostrom’s model offers a promising path forward because he illustrated a way to respond to Hardin’s theory that does not rationalize the ESA’s centralized government control. Ostrom’s model is based upon a middle ground between centralized government control and privatization. Ostrom illustrated, most of the theory and practice of successful management involves resources that are effectively managed by small to large groups living in a single country with nested institutions at varying scales. At the same time, she suggested major issues such as biodiversity depend on international cooperation. Almost 30% of the species currently listed under the ESA neither live nor migrate through the United States or the territories under its jurisdiction (Foley et al. 2017). Getting the governments of other nations involved would be useful to achieve the purpose of delisting species. Also, allocating ESA funding to biologists in conservation groups around the world would be beneficial. Further, Ostrom suggested creating incentives for people to positively impact endangered species management because reciprocity can often overcome conflicts of interest between parties. She also suggested the implementation of technology specifically designed to identify and monitor species in motion which would help with understanding their behavior and giving them what they need to thrive.


CBS News. 2019. “On the brink: The Endangered Species Act.” CBS news. Jul 21, 2019. Video, 7:57.

Foley, Catherine, Maureen Lynch, Lesley Thorne, and Heather Lynch. 2017. “Listing Foreign Species under the Endangered Species Act”. BioScience. 67 (7): 627-637.

Ostrom, Elinor, et al. 1999. Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges. Science 284, pp. 278-282.

Sparling, Donald W. 2014. Natural Resource Administration: Wildlife, Fisheries, Forests and Parks. San Diego: Academic Press.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife. 2020. “Lacey Act”.

Comment by Genevieve Johnston-Grier:


Hit on all the key points in the environment. I agree with you that the partnership strategy that Ostrom suggests has the potential in assisting with the protection of threatened and endangered species. Though I support the strategy of including all interested parties when developing policy and planning for listed species conservation, protection, and recovery. The new rule Section 4(b)(2) of the ESA passed may assist and get a larger number of landowners in supporting endangered species as it enables the Secretary of the DOI to undesignated private property as critical habitat as long as it does not lead to the endangered species becoming extinct (USFW 2020). Though I do still worry about landowners who kill protected species due to the fear of their property becoming critical habitat and the loss of potential habitat for species that could utilize the properties that would be listed as critical habitat. Because remember humans are the only species that recognize borders.



“Trump Administration Strengthens Conservation by Finalizing Endangered Species Critical Habitat Designation Rule.” 2020. Official Web Page of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. USFW. December 17.

Comment by John Glover:

Hi Mary,

Great post this week. I appreciate that you refuted the arguments of critics of the ESA. While the program has not de-listed many of the species that are on it, it has been successful in preventing the extinction of many American species. Some of America’s most iconic wildlife has benefited from the ESA, including Bald Eagles (Sparling, 2014). Additionally, critics need to understand that the ESA has a major lack in funding.

I would go one step further and say that the ESA has been failed by several administration’s failures to address key wildlife issues. One specific example that comes to mind is the Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). Sage Grouse populations have declined by 90 percent, and have their habitat threatened by oil and gas developments. Despite the clear and present danger to Sage Grouse populations, the Obama Administration chose not to list the species (Fears, 2015). Instead, the Obama Administration put in protections by having the BLM push for new regulations on oil and gas companies. Regulations proposed included creating buffer zones around developments and reducing noise. These protections were shortly overhauled by the Trump Administration, and then weakened further (Nordhaus, 2019).

This weakening of protections for the Sage Grouse could have been prevented if the Obama Administration had listed the species. Instead, the Administration chose to cave to the pressures of the oil and gas industry. The consequences for Sage Grouse could be severe if the incoming Biden Administration does not list the species and move to protect it.

Reference List:

Fears, Darryl. 2015. “Decision Not to List Sage Grouse as Endangered is Called Life Saver by Some, Death Knell by Others.” The Washington Post. to an external site.

Nordhaus, Hannah. 2019. “An Iconic Bird Just Lost Important Habitat Protections: What it Means.” National Geographic. to an external site.

Sparling, Donald W. 2014. Natural Resource Administration: Wildlife, Fisheries, Forests and Parks. San Diego: Academic Press.