The United States Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973 to protect and ultimately recover endangered plants and animals, and the ecosystems on which they depend.

The Interior Department’s US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) administer the ESA. The USFWS is responsible for terrestrial and freshwater species, and the NMFS is responsible for marine wildlife. Species that are afforded protection under the ESA must first be “listed” as either “Endangered” or “Threatened”.

  • Endangered species are those that are in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their known range.
  • Threatened species are those that are likely to become extinct in the foreseeable future.

Federally Endangered Species of California

In California there are a total of 341 species listed as Threatened or Endangered, including 154 animals and 187 plants.  Follow the links below for detailed descriptions of each of California’s Federally Endangered Species

How the ESA Protects Listed Species

The ESA protects listed species by prohibiting the “take” of listed species, and also prohibits the interstate or international trade of listed species without a permit.

“Take” is defined as:

“to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct.”

“Harm” is defined as:

“an act which actually kills or injures wildlife. Such an act may include significant habitat modification or degradation where it actually kills or injures wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding, or sheltering.”

Including habitat modification and degradation in the definition of “harm” is a key aspect of the ESA’s ability to protect listed species. This definition requires that a permit from the USFWS or the NMFS be obtained prior to “take” of any listed species, which includes the loss or alteration of habitat in addition to the loss of individual species.

ESA Permitting

Section 7 of the ESA requires Federal agencies to consult with the USFWS (or NMFS) to ensure that actions (projects) the agencies funds, authorizes, or implements do not jeopardize the future existence of any listed species. The consultation results in either a concurrence letter from USFWS stating that the proposed action does not jeopardize the species, or USFWS issues a Biological Opinion that includes a defined limit of “take” of listed species that is authorized for the action.

Section 10 of the ESA is used by private land owners (including citizens, corporations, Native American Tribes, States, and counties) who would like to develop land where listed species occur. Landowners can receive a “take” permit if they complete a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) approved by the USFWS (or NMFS) to mitigate or compensate for impacts to listed species permitted during the development.

Research and Recovery Permits are also covered under Section 10 of the ESA. Recovery permits are issued to scientists in order to study or conduct specific research activities with federally listed species. This includes biologists conducting surveys as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) permitting processes, and for some listed species, must first obtain a Recovery Permit prior to the start of the survey.

Recovery of Listed Species

The ultimate goal of the ESA is to recover each listed species to a condition of ecological health that allows it to persist indefinitely into the future. USFWS develops and implements a recovery plan for each listed species, and has a goal of updating each plan every 5 years. Recovery plans describe the current condition of the species and a detailed plan of action for recovering the species in a way that will lead to delisting from the ESA. Each species recovery plan can be found here.

How Species Get Listed and Delisted

USFWS is responsible for listing species to the ESA. Section 4 of the ESA requires species to be listed as endangered or threatened solely on the basis of their biological status and threats to their existence. Five factors are considered when evaluating a species for listing:

  1. Damage or destruction of the species habitat
  2. Over-utilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes
  3. Disease or Predation
  4. Inadequacy of existing protection (laws included)
  5. Other natural or man-made factors that affect the continued existence of the species

USFWS keeps a list of Candidate Species that are known to be in need of listing to halt the decline of the species, but they are unable to list these species due to other priorities (i.e. budget constraints, manpower). A list of Proposed Species is also kept by the USFWS that includes Candidate Species that are currently being reviewed for listing as Endangered or Threatened.

Delisting species from the ESA is the goal of the entire recovery program and ESA. Once a species has met the goals of the recovery plan it is proposed for delisting, and can be taken off of the Endangered Species List. Some of the most famous recovered species include the humpback whale, gray wolf, bald eagle, and the American alligator. The only other way to get delisted from the ESA is to go extinct.