Confronting the Biodiversity Crisis in the Face of Climate Change: What’s Ahead for the ESA?

Thursday, February 29, 2024

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted on December 23, 1973, with the goal of protecting species vulnerable to extinction and conserving the ecosystems and habitats necessary for their survival. The ESA mandates that the federal government maintain a list of all “endangered” and “threatened” species and develop and implement recovery plans, with the objective of removing species from the list. The law also prohibits federal agencies from authorizing, funding, or carrying out any action that could jeopardize a listed species or damage their "critical habitat" and outlaws the “taking” (capturing or harming) of any listed species of endangered fish or wildlife. 

In its first 50 years, the ESA has saved 99% of the species under its protection from extinction, including the iconic bald eagle, the American alligator, and the Black-footed ferret. For this reason, the ESA has been lauded as among the world’s most effective habitat and wildlife conservation laws. That said, the ESA’s overall success has been contested, as the list of endangered and threatened species continues to grow. Additionally, only 54 species have been deemed recovered and removed from the list completely, which is the ultimate goal of the Act. With an estimated one third of animal and plant species in the United States at risk of extinction today, evaluating the success and shortcomings of the ESA and strengthening the statute is more important than ever. 

To do just that, ELI convened a panel of experts to assess the efficacy of the statute and discuss what might happen next as climate change increases the risk of extinction. Senior Associate Attorney in the Biodiversity Defense Program at Earthjustice, Sharmeen Morrison moderated the dialogue between the following panelists: 
•    Derb Carter, Senior Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center; 
•    J.B. Ruhl, David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair in Law and Co-Director of the Energy, Environment, and Land Use Program at Vanderbilt Law School; 
•    Sean Skaggs, Partner with Ebbin Moser + Skaggs LLP; and 
•    William Snape III, Assistant Dean of Adjunct Faculty Affairs at American University Washington College of Law.

The experts highlighted the many accomplishments of the ESA–including how the Act has amplified scientific research and improved our scientific knowledge of species, helped to increase species populations, and proved to be a durable legal framework. They outlined the funding challenges that the ESA has faced and explored whether the statute can be leveraged to mitigate climate impacts on endangered and threatened species in the coming decades. 

To learn more about these issues, including how the ESA might support adaptation efforts and affect the permitting of oil and gas projects, watch the ELI webinar The ESA at 50: Successes, Shortcomings, and a Discussion of What’s Next, available to all ELI members. or read the transcript in ELR, available to members and nonmembers alike. 

If you are not an ELI member but would like to have access to archived sessions like this one, see the many benefits of membership and how to join.