How to Fortify the Endangered Species Act for the Next 50 Years

In the years ahead, flora, fauna, and the ecosystems they depend on will face many hazards, both old and new. These actions could strengthen the act’s ability to meet evolving challenges.
Illustration of a prairie chicken walking on a farm with cows, a tractor, and an oil well in the background.
Illustration: Alexander Vidal

Help Species Move to Safer Ground 

As climate change makes species’ historical ranges uninhabitable, translocating them—or removing obstacles so that they can move themselves—may be their only shot at survival. Anticipating that reality, in June the FWS added flexibility to the ESA’s regulations for relocating imperiled species outside their traditional habitats. Key deer in Florida, Karner blue butterflies in the Northeast and Midwest, and St. Croix ground lizards in the Virgin Islands may become candidates for experimental populations to help these species hang on even as they lose their remaining habitat to rising seas, frequent wildfires, and extreme weather events. Creating corridors that allow animals to move into or between healthy ecosystems could help many more species. To that end, the Biden administration launched the America the Beautiful initiative to restore, connect, and conserve 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030.

Form New Collaborations 

Partnerships will be increasingly important in the coming decades, especially in areas targeted for massive new wind and solar energy infrastructure. For example, while disease and lead poisoning continue to hinder the critically endangered California Condor’s recovery, renewable energy development poses a mounting threat. In June the FWS announced a plan to offset deaths as both wind turbines and condors grow in number in Kern County, California, where roughly 1,200 massive turbines now sprawl across 200 square miles. The agency struck a deal with two dozen energy companies operating in the area: It will allow the “incidental” deaths of up to 11 free-flying condors over 30 years in exchange for the companies funding captive-breeding efforts to offset the losses. The FWS has taken a similar approach with the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, allowing renewable energy companies to obtain incidental take permits in exchange for restoring and protecting conservation strongholds for the bird.

Reckon With Pollution 

Pesticides are pervasive, and knowing how they affect endangered species is a key, and long-missing, part of recovery and protection. The EPA has rarely met its regulatory obligations for assessing the effects of pesticides on threatened and endangered wildlife—a shortcoming detailed in an agency report in 2022. In response, the EPA faced a wave of lawsuits from environmental groups that encompassed more than 1,000 pesticide products containing 35 active ingredients that had been registered without assessments of how they might impact listed species, as required by the ESA. That mega-suit was settled in September, creating a binding path for the EPA to fulfill its obligation to protect endangered species while conducting pesticide reviews and approvals.

Incorporate Traditional Knowledge 

There’s growing awareness that when tribes have strong land rights and the authority to employ traditional forest management, fire ecology, and other practices, ecosystems hold more carbon and are more biodiverse. In 2022 the Biden administration committed to ensuring that all decisions relating to federal stewardship of lands, waters, and wildlife include consideration of how to safeguard the treaty, spiritual, subsistence, and cultural interests of tribes. The White House is backing that commitment with funding: In September the U.S. Department of the Interior announced an agreement to support tribal-led efforts to restore healthy salmon populations to the Upper Columbia River Basin, and it pledged $5 million to help fund the restoration of American bison and grasslands in tribal communities. There’s also growing support for considering “cultural abundance” when it comes to setting species recovery milestones—taking into account the populations necessary to ensure the preservation not only of species, but also of vital Indigenous traditions, such as subsistence hunting and traditional medicine.

Fund Conservation 

One way to take pressure off the ESA’s limited resources is by preventing species from needing listing in the first place. That’s the aim of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA), a bipartisan bill that, if enacted, would devote an unprecedented $1.3 billion to state wildlife agencies and $97.5 million to tribal conservation programs. RAWA’s support of healthy ecosystems would also benefit people, supporters say, by maintaining clean air and water, furthering outdoor recreation opportunities, and strengthening local economies. The proposed Extinction Prevention Act, meanwhile, would give often overlooked wildlife a boost: four $5 million grants would help states, territories, tribes, and environmental nonprofits conserve imperiled freshwater mussels, American butterflies, Pacific Island plants, and Southwest desert fishes. And the bipartisan Migratory Birds of the Americas Conservation Enhancements Act would reauthorize and expand the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act. The law has funded more than 700 projects that support healthy avian habitat in 43 countries and, in the United States, more than 40 states and territories, helping to protect birds throughout the Western Hemisphere.