The Power, Limits, and Evolving Uses of the Endangered Species Act

Close to 1,700 animals and plants have been listed under the policy, each with its own rich, complex history. These nine case studies represent benchmark moments in the act's history.

The Species: California Condor

The Upshot: Drastic measures can turn the tide.
The Situation: California Condors once soared over much of the contiguous United States, but habitat loss, eggshell thinning caused by DDT, and lead poisoning took a severe toll. In 1967 the bird was declared endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act (ESPA), the precursor to the ESA. Empowered by the ESA, the FWS established a recovery program in 1979 to protect remaining condor habitat and grow the population through a captive-breeding program. But the scavenger’s numbers continued to dwindle. By 1982 only 22 condors existed, and the FWS and partners took the unprecedented, highly controversial step of capturing every wild bird and focusing on captive breeding. The program proved successful; today more than 300 of the critically endangered birds live in five closely monitored flocks across California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California, Mexico, and another 200 live in captivity. In recent decades, scientists have employed the same extreme measure for other species, such as the Hawaiian Crow, or ‘Alalā, bringing into captivity all individuals when extinction has otherwise been all but assured.

The Species: Maui Nukupu’u

The Upshot: Survival is not guaranteed.
The Situation: Like many native Hawaiian  forest birds, this honeycreeper was hit hard by myriad threats and listed as endangered in 1970 under the ESPA. Its habitat shrank as forests were felled to make way for agriculture and urbanization, and feral pigs ran rampant through remaining habitat, tearing up the landscape and dispersing seeds of invasive weeds that outcompeted native plants. The birds themselves suffered from rats, which devoured eggs, nestlings, and adults, and diseases such as avian malaria and avian pox carried by nonnative mosquitoes. The government and conservation groups created reserves on public and private land on Maui in the 1980s and ’90s to protect remaining forest for endemic flora and fauna, including the nukupu’u. Despite such efforts, the bird’s numbers continued to plummet, and it was last seen in 1996. In October the FWS delisted the Maui Nukupu’u—and 20 other animals, including 9 birds— due to extinction. For these species, ESA protections came too late.

The Species: Kirtland’s Warbler

The Upshot: Recovery doesn’t mean self-sufficiency.
The Situation: This rare songbird nests exclusively in early-succession jack pine forests in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario. Its numbers plummeted primarily due to fire suppression that thwarted the creation of young pine stands. The species also suffered from brood parasitism by cowbirds that expanded into Michigan in the wake of deforestation. It gained endangered status in 1967 under the ESPA. Only 167 pairs remained in 1974 when the FWS began collaborating with state officials and private landowners to manage jack pine on 135,000 acres of public land and cull cowbirds. The warblers rebounded to 2,300 pairs by 2015, and the agency delisted the bird in 2019. The recovery came with a significant caveat: Because the species relies so completely on jack pines, it requires intensive management of its nesting habitat to survive.

The Species: Snail Darter

The Upshot: The law’s authority is immense.
The Situation: This small fish, initially found only in the Little Tennessee River watershed, was listed as endangered in 1975 and threatened with extinction by the proposed construction of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Tellico Dam. In the first ESA case to reach the Supreme Court, in 1978 the justices ruled in favor of protecting the fish, with the majority opinion noting that the language of the law made no exception for any habitat modification or destruction that would jeopardize the continued existence of an endangered species. The following year Congress amended the act to allow exemptions if the project is of regional or national significance; there isn’t a reasonable alternative; and the proposed project is clearly better than alternatives. The dam was ultimately built after snail darters were transplanted to other rivers, and the fish recovered and was delisted in 2022.

The Species: Northern Spotted Owl

The Upshot: Listing can create a cultural flashpoint.
The Situation: One of three Spotted Owl subspecies, this elusive bird prefers the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, the massive trees found there are also highly valuable to the timber industry, which were intensively logged in the late-1800s to mid-1900s. After the FWS listed the owl as threatened in 1990, federal officials halted logging on millions of acres of public lands, intense public debate over how to balance the economic value of logging with habitat protection. While the “Timber Wars” between environmental activists and loggers raged in the woods, numerous court battles between the government, environmentalists, and the timber industry reduced the scope of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, which designated large reserves to protect the owl and limited logging on 1.5 million acres. Today, Northern Spotted Owl numbers continue to decline due to logging on private lands and competition from Barred Owls.

The Species: Polar Bear

The Upshot: Climate change is an existential risk.
The Situation: An apex predator, this carnivore relies heavily on sea ice to move, raise young, and hunt seals. Today the Arctic is warming four times as fast as the rest of the world, causing sea ice to dwindle. For the first time, the FWS cited climate change as a factor when it listed the polar bear as threatened in 2008. Though populations were stable, the agency based its decision on sea-ice loss projections. The ESA doesn’t confer the power to regulate the greenhouse-gas emissions causing the habitat loss, so the management plan focuses largely on managing subsistence hunting, protecting the habitat needed to rear cubs, and minimizing risks from the fossil fuel industry by incorporating seasonal bear movements into oil and gas planning. Since the polar bear, climate-related threats have factored into listing decisions for dozens of other species.

The Species: Greater Sage-Grouse

The Upshot: The threat of listing can spur action.
The Situation: This flamboyant bird relies on sagebrush across 11 Western states for food, nesting, and protection from predators. Invasive grasses, agriculture, energy development, and wildfires have shrunk its habitat to nearly half of its historic range. In 2010 the FWS determined that the grouse deserved protection under the ESA  but had to wait while the agency addressed higher priorities. In the meantime, private landowners, states, and federal agencies agreed to a sweeping set of land-use plans that, by restricting development in some areas and directing efforts to remove invasive plants and restore habitat, reduced threats across 90 percent of the bird’s range. In 2015 the FWS determined that those collaborative conservation measures were protection enough and that listing the bird wasn’t necessary. The Trump administration, however, removed many of the safeguards the stakeholders had agreed to, and the bird’s numbers continue to fall. Now, the Greater Sage-Grouse is stuck in limbo: Congress has prohibited listing the bird through budget riders, undermining the science-driven law.

The Species: Tiehm’s Buckwheat

The Upshot: Energy transition adds complexity.
The Situation: Today found only on 10 acres in Esmeralda County, Nevada, this wildflower evolved to grow in boron- and lithium-rich soil. Cattle grazing, invasive species, and, more recently, mining for lithium—a metal necessary for electric vehicles and clean energy technology—threaten its survival. By 2021 scientists concluded that only 15,757 Tiehm’s buckwheat plants remained, a decline of nearly two-thirds in just two years. Since extending endangered status to the flower in 2023, the FWS has begun removing invasive plants and identifying methods to directly seed or transplant Tiehm’s buckwheat to increase its footprint. The government also established a 910-acre critical habitat zone to safeguard the remaining plants, and it banned lithium mining in the protected area while allowing the industry to continue to tap the valuable resource on surrounding lands.

The Species: Bog Buck Moth

The Upshot: A backlog causes dangerous delays.
The Situation: This striking moth feeds primarily on bog buckbean plants in the low-shrub wetlands of central New York and Ontario. Development, invasive plants, and increased flooding associated with climate change are degrading its already limited range. Though the bog buck moth had been a candidate for listing since the 1990s, it took decades for the FWS to declare it endangered in 2023. A lack of information about the moth’s biology, confusion around its taxonomy, and the long list of species under consideration for listing contributed to delays in the ruling. While the moth will now receive habitat improvements and other support it needs to survive, more than 300 species still await review. Experts say the backlog will persist unless Congress provides FWS with an infusion of funds to move more quickly—helping species in need before their situations become even more dire.