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In Brief

Global Species Protection in U.S. Turns 40

17 December 2013

Three furry animal faces (USFWS/Kimberly Tamkun)

The U.S. Endangered Species Act turns 40 years old in 2013, offering protections for about 1,500 species. The U.S. law was passed in a time of growing awareness about threats to the natural world. Important international agreements to protect wildlife also crossed an important milestone in 1973.

Survival of the black-footed ferret is one of the success stories achieved in the 40 years since passage of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). The black-footed ferret is among the rarest of North American mammals and was once thought extinct; a small ferret population was rediscovered in the 1980s. Through capture, controlled breeding and reintroduction to its habitat, the ferret is making slow but steady progress in rebuilding its numbers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Native American tribes and certain agencies have established recovering populations on tribal lands, but a form of plague that killed ferrets in the last century still remains a threat to the animals.

More than 1,500 plant and animal species are listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. ESA, which was signed into law in December 1973.

The U.S. law was adopted at a time of broadening global awareness that encroaching human activity threatened some species’ survival. In March 1973, the United States and 20 other nations signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and began a global movement now joined by 178 governments.

CITES protects roughly 5,600 animal species and 30,000 plant species against over-exploitation through international trade. This global trade — worth billions of dollars and including hundreds of millions of living things — encompasses such diverse products as foods, exotic leather goods, musical instruments, timber, art objects and medicines.

The U.S. ESA and CITES changed the ethics of this trade, establishing legal structures prohibiting the overexploitation of species. CITES governments have agreed that species must be preserved as “an irreplaceable part of the natural systems of the earth.”