Wildlife diversity is one of the defining achievements for the planet earth — somehow or another, there is a species that is equipped to live in nearly every imaginable climate on the planet. There are species that have found a way to live in all extreme environments throughout the globe, whether that be intense heat or cold, or areas with very little light or oxygen. However, changes to the climate, real estate development, overhunting, and disruptions to the food chain have threatened the existence of many species, leading directly to their extinction. Today, many species that were synonymous with the landscape of North America before the founding of America are nowhere to be found.

Luckily, in 1973, the United States under the Nixon administration passed the Endangered Species Act with flying bipartisan support. Because of this act, species of animals and plants can be classified as either “endangered” or “threatened” depending on how close to extinction they are as a result of natural and human causes. Recognizing the intrinsic urgency of ensuring biodiversity for the health of US ecosystems and biomes, the federal government imposed steep penalties on individuals or companies that actively took from protected species. The law itself clarifies that to “take” from a species is “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct.”

What makes a species eligible for “protected” status? According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the eligibility is based on the five following criteria:

  1. damage to, or destruction of, a species’ habitat;
  2. overutilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;
  3. disease or Bart Gamett/USFWS predation
  4. inadequacy of existing protection; and
  5. other natural or manmade factors that affect the continued existence of the species.

The long-term goal of the act is not simply to make the human population aware of the species it needs to protect, but also to get species off the list in good time. As such, the law provides for ways to protect the natural habitats of the species and get them back to adequate population numbers.

Once a species is placed on the list, its “critical habitat” becomes the name of the game. A critical habitat is a geographical area with the amenities that will help the species in peril proliferate. The federal government taps state governments, private landowners, and corporations to help in the creation and protection of these critical habitats where geographically appropriate.

Globally, two species of kiwis, various big cat species, and America’s own bald eagle have been removed from the list of endangered animals thanks to crackdowns on poaching and increasingly powerful state park programs. However, thousands of species are still at risk due to the destruction of their habitats, natural disasters, and illegal hunting, and many likely went extinct this past calendar year.

It’s urgent that everyone plays their part in making sure the planet remains habitable to the beautiful array of species that call earth home.