Laws & Policies


Many laws help protect at-risk species including the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Some of these protect specific species, while others are focused on protecting habitat, too. In addition, states protect wildlife under their own endangered species or species of concern conservation laws. International treaties like the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora contain provisions for the protection of wildlife, including endangered species.


Endangered Species Act

When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, it recognized that our rich natural heritage is of "esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people." It further expressed concern that many of our nation's native plants and animals were in danger of becoming extinct.

The purpose of the ESA is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. It is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The USFWS has primary responsibility for terrestrial and freshwater organisms, while the responsibilities of NMFS are mainly marine wildlife such as whales and anadromous fish such as salmon.

Under the ESA, species may be listed as either endangered or threatened.

  • "Endangered" means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

  • "Threatened" means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.

A black-footed ferret looks back towards the camera
Explore listed animals

Find out which animals are listed under the ESA.

Greenish-silver spiny leaves extend out from the center of a silversword plant
Explore listed plants

Find out which plants are listed under the ESA.


All species of plants and animals, except pest insects, are eligible for listing as endangered or threatened. For the purposes of the ESA, Congress defined species to include subspecies, varieties, and, for vertebrates, distinct population segments.

The ESA also makes government agencies responsible for protecting critical habitat of listed species. Critical habitats are specific areas that are:

  • Within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time of listing if they contain physical or biological features essential to conservation and those features may require special management considerations or protection

  • Outside the geographical area occupied by the species if the agency determines that the area itself is essential for conservation


Frequently Asked Questions About the ESA

All federal agencies have responsibilities under the ESA, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Department of the Interior) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (Department of Commerce) are the agencies that administer the Endangered Species Act. These agencies:

  • list the species as threatened or endangered,
  • conduct consultations with other federal agencies,
  • provide permits for activities that may impact species, and
  • lead recovery actions for listed species.

The National Park Service works with these agencies to conduct appropriate conservation and restoration activities and minimize negative impacts to at-risk species in parks.

A species is added to the list of Endangered and Threatened species when it is determined to be at-risk due to any of the following factors:

  • the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range;

  • overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;

  • disease or predation;

  • the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or

  • other natural or manmade factors affecting its survival.

Species can be listed under the ESA by the following two ways:

  1. Through a petition process where any interested person may petition to add or remove a species from the list.
  2. Through a candidate assessment process when USFWS biologists identify species as listing candidates. 

Learn more about the listing process.


The silhouettes of four sand hill cranes against a bright orange and red sky

NPS Photo

Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Passed in 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) is one of the oldest pieces of environmental legislation in the country. The act came at a time when North American birds were in drastic decline due to overhunting and unregulated commercial trade in bird feathers, often for the use in ladies' hats. Thankfully, fashion trends come and go, but the act holds strong today with its intended purpose, making it unlawful to kill, hunt, sell, or possess most native species of birds without a permit.

The MBTA originally protected 1,026 native bird species. A 2020 revision of the list of migratory birds protected under the MBTA added 75 species and removed 8 species bringing the total number of protected species up to 1,093.

A bald eagle soars with outstretched wings

Carey Chisholm

Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act

Today, eagle populations in the United States are thriving and eagles have since been delisted under the Endangered Species Act. However, eagles are still protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

This law, originally enacted in 1940, prohibits the take, possession, sale, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, of any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, including any part, nest, or egg, unless allowed by permit (16 U.S.C. 668(a); 50 CFR 22). This includes the taking of feathers from eagles.

A humpback whale breaches in Glacier Bay surrounded by mountains

© Sean Neilson 2014

Marine Mammal Protection Act

In 1972 Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in response to significant declines in some species of marine mammals due to human activity. The MMPA established a national policy to prevent marine mammal species and population stocks from declining beyond the point where they ceased to be significant functioning elements of the ecosystems of which they are a part. This piece of legislation shifted the focus of marine resource management to an ecosystem-based approach.

Under the MMPA all marine mammals are protected. The MMPA is administered by NOAA Fisheries (whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (walrus, manatees, sea otters, and polar bears), and the Marine Mammal Commission. Learn more about the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Last updated: January 20, 2022


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