Birds and the Endangered Species Act

Center for Biological Diversity
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Kierán Suckling


The Endangered Species Act is the world’s strongest law protecting animals and plants on the brink of extinction. In fact, 99 percent of species protected under the Act have avoided extinction.

For the Center's third in-depth report on the Act's efficacy, A Wild Success: A Systematic Review of Bird Recovery Under the Endangered Species Act — the most exhaustive analysis of its kind — we examined how well the Act is recovering species by determining the objective, long-term population trends of all 120 bird species that have been listed as threatened or endangered under the Act since 1967.

Drawing on more than 1,800 scientific population surveys, our study used scientifically vetted data points to determine (1) if bird populations increased, decreased or stabilized after being protected by the Act, (2) the magnitude of population changes, (3) whether recovery rates are consistent with rates projected in federal recovery plans, and (4) how endangered birds fared in comparison to more common birds.

Twenty-three of the birds we examined had no Endangered Species Act population trend because they likely went extinct prior to being protected, were delisted for reasons not related to population trends, or were protected under the Act for fewer than 10 years. Our trend analyses were based on the remaining 97 species. On average our datasets spanned 83 percent of the time each species was protected by the Act; thus they represent a true picture of the Act's long-term effect.

We found that the Endangered Species Act has been extraordinarily successful in recovering imperiled birds:

  • Eighty-five percent of bird populations in the continental United States increased or stabilized while protected by the Act.

  • The average population increase was 624 percent.

  • Birds from the Pacific Islands (Hawaii, Guam, Palau and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands) recovered less robustly, with 61 percent either increased or stabilized.

  • On average birds have been protected under the Act for 36 years, but their federal recovery plans estimate they need 63 years to fully recover; thus, few birds were expected to have recovered by 2015.

  • Birds are recovering at the rate expected by federal recovery plans.


WOOD STORK, U.S. DPS (Mycteria americana)

Wood stork, U.S. DPS
population graph for wood stork, U.S. DPS

Status since listing: Increased

Growth since listing: 61%

ESA status: Threatened

List year: 1984

Downlisted: Final 2014

Recovery plan: 1999

The U.S. distinct population segment of the wood stork declined due to loss of wetland breeding habitat caused by the creation and management of levees, canals and floodgates. The number of wood stork nests was estimated at 6,245 in 1984 when the species was listed as endangered. In 2014 the species was reclassified as threatened. Approximately 10,058 nests existed in 2015.

WHOOPING CRANE (Grus americana)

Whooping crane
Whooping crane population graph

Status since listing: Increased

Growth since listing: 923%

ESA status: Endangered

List year: 1967

Recovery plan: 2007

Critical habitat:1978

The whooping crane declined precipitously in the late 1800s and early 1900s due to hunting and habitat loss. It remains threatened by habitat degradation, collisions with power lines, and oil and gas development. When listed as endangered in 1967, the whooping crane consisted of 43 wild and 7 captive birds. Thanks to extensive conservation efforts, the species had grown to 440 wild and 161 captive birds by 2014.

PIPING PLOVER, ATLANTIC DPS (Charadrius melodus)

Atlantic piping plover
Atlantic piping plover, Charadrius melodus, population graph

Status since listing: Increased

Growth since listing: 212%

ESA status: Threatened

List year: 1985

Recovery plan: 2003

Critical habitat: 2001

The Atlantic piping plover initially declined due to hunting and the millinery trade. With these eliminated it increased in the first half of the 20th century, but began declining after 1950 due to development, beach crowding and predation. It was listed as threatened in 1985. Intensive habitat protection and predator control grew its U.S. population from 550 pairs in 1986 to 1,679 in 2015. The 1,600 pair recovery goal was met in 2007 and 2012 through 2015 (although 2014 data is lacking).




On Time, On Target: How the Endangered Species Act Is Saving America's Wildlife (2012)

Studies of how protected species have fared under the Act — comprised of plentiful data, properly analyzed — illustrate the law’s power and importance. The Center has so far produced three such reports.

As stated in our 2012 report On Time, On Target: “Critics of the Endangered Species Act contend it is a failure because only 1 percent of the species under its protection have recovered and been delisted. The critique, however, is undermined by its failure to explain how many species should have recovered by now. It is a ship without an anchor.” To prove just that, this report examined 110 U.S. species across all major taxa, comparing actual recovery rates with the projected recovery rates in federal recovery plans. Of those about 90 percent of animals and plants were recovering at their plans’ federally specified rates.

Measuring the Success of the Endangered Species Act: Recovery Trends in the Northeastern United States (2007)

The Center's earlier report, Measuring the Success of the Endangered Species Act — restricted to species in the Northeast — showed almost identical results, finding that the populations of 93 percent of these federally protected species had been stabilized or improving since they were placed on the endangered species list, and 82 percent of them were on track to meet recovery goals. This report was among the first of its kind to objectively quantify the effectiveness of the United States’ foremost biodiversity conservation law.

It’s no coincidence that all the Center’s on-point, in-depth analysis points to the same conclusion: When properly applied, the Act not only prevents listed species from going extinct 99 percent of the time — it also keeps them on track for recovery at a remarkable rate.

We’ll continue to carefully track, record and analyze the Act’s effectiveness (as well as watchdog its implementation) so we can report our results to the world and help ensure that the public knows the power of this innovative and indispensible law.