40 years later: Why the Endangered Species Act still matters


Forty years ago today, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. The legislation was created to protect threatened species from extinction, and, unlike some laws that have gone on the books, decades later it's still very relevant.

"The Endangered Species Act is hands down one of the country's strongest conservation laws. As a result, we've saved hundreds of animals, plants, birds, and fish and protected thousands of acres of lands," Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, told CBSNews.com. "We changed from being a country that drove species to extinction, extirpating billions of passenger pigeons by 1914, killing off the last known Caribbean monk seal by 1952, and losing the Atossa fritillary butterfly in 1960, to a nation that undertakes extraordinary means, at times, to protect some of our most fragile species."

The Endangered Species Act itself is administered by both the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The law works by listing a species as threatened or endangered, then designing a habitat for their survival, and ultimately restoring the population so that the species can be removed from the list.

In fact, the organizations have found that being able to save one species within an ecosystem actually helps to sustain the entire bio-network. Huta explained that once the gray wolf was restored to Yellowstone National Park, the whole ecological unit was positively impacted.

"It changed the way that elk and deer behaved. They no longer hung out in wide open areas, over-grazing the vegetation. So, cottonwoods and willows returned to the riverbanks. That cooled off the temperature of the rivers," she said. "We saw fish returning to these stretches of river. The restored riparian (river-side) habitat also brought back birds, insects and beaver. The whole ecosystem came alive. And of course, the tourists came flocking to see the wolves, bringing economic benefits for the whole region."

These wolves became endangered because they were hunted to near extinction and by 1974, only a few of them were left in Michigan. The animals were then released into a protected environment in Yellowstone National Park and by 2008, there were 1,700 wolves in the Northern Rockies and 4,000 in the Great Lakes area.

The gray wolves are not the only species who have been helped by this legislation. Since the passage of the Endangered Species Act, many animals have been brought back from the brink of extinction.

Even the U.S. symbol of freedom, the bald eagle, was close to dying out in 1963. They had declined to only 416 nesting pairs because DDT, an insecticide, had thinned the shells of their eggs, and their habitats had been destroyed. However, after years of being carefully protected, by 2007 the species was taken off the endangered list as their numbers had risen to 11,000 nesting pairs in the United States.

Friday is not only the anniversary of this legislation; it is also recognized as the eighth annual Endangered Species Day. The U.S. Senate began the tradition in 2006 to honor the importance of protecting America's threatened, endangered, and at-risk species. The day is also meant to celebrate the success stories of recovered species.

The government-backed Endangered Species Day is celebrated around the U.S. with over 200 events geared toward educating people. Huta explains that America's program to help these threatened species is much more comprehensive than those in other countries, and the success can be seen in the number of species saved.

"There is a deep sense that we owe it to our children and grandchildren to be good stewards and protect endangered species and the special places they call home," said Huta "The Endangered Species Act articulated America's desire to fulfill that responsibility."