Endangered Species Act

Originally adopted in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was designed to protect species believed to be on the brink of extinction. When the law was enacted, 109 species were listed for protection. Today, more than 1250 plants and animals are on the ESA list. The ESA categorizes species as threatened, endangered or extinct. Species can be petitioned for listing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the federal agency mandated to oversee ESA species, makes a ruling on the petition. Based on the evidence presented in the listing the USFWS can list a species as threatened, endangered or reject the petition as unwarranted. In addition species may be listed as candidate species pending review of a petition for listing or due to insufficient data from which to make a designation. Because of the private property ramifications and associated political implications of listing species the USFWS has issued decisions stating that ESA listing is “warranted but precluded.”

Many states also have adopted legislation categorizing species as sensitive, threatened or endangered. The U.S. Forest Service also has a category for sensitive species. This designation in turn influences U.S. Forest Service land management practices in areas with habitat supporting sensitive species.

The USFWS strives to protect ESA species from further population declines while simultaneously working to increase abundance and expand the range of a given species. This is primarily accomplished through protecting critical habitat for ESA species. Habitat is critical for foraging, cover and reproduction. USFWS staff work with other federal and state agencies identifying and developing strategies for protecting ESA habitat. In some cases this includes cooperative agreements with private landowners. Visit the USFWS endangered species program for more information.

ESA species management is an integral component in many river conservation issues, particularly hydro dam related issues. American Whitewater staff work closely with state and federal agencies developing instream flow regimes designed to protect aquatic habitats for ESA listed species. Sadly, ESA listed species have been used by some entities in hydropower proceedings to craft instream flow regimes that meet their specific self-interest while precluding other interests at the table. American Whitewater advocates for whitewater releases that correspond to historic pre-project flow volumes. The scientific literature overwhelming singles out flow volume as the number one factor influencing aquatic habitat. Seasonal variation in flow volumes is critical for triggering riverine ecological processes including aquatic organism life history patterns. Whitewater releases corresponding to these pre-project flows also serve ecological purposes.

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