Other Laws: Endangered Species Act

The preceding chapters have discussed many of the most important, and most used, environmental statutes. A host of other statutes, however, may apply to a given situation. Most of these statutes are administered by either the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (EPD).

This section includes a high-level overview of another law you may encounter in pursuing environmental justice. This law may have exemptions or nuances that are beyond the scope of this section. If you have questions, please reach out to a lawyer for assistance. In addressing any environmental justice issue, one of your first tasks will be to determine which of these laws might apply to the situation you are facing.


Endangered Species Act

(16 U.S.C. §§ 1531-1544)

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted to protect endangered or threatened species and their ecosystems.

The Act defines an endangered species as “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” A threatened species is “any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

The Act only protects species that are listed on the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife and plants. Species can become listed in two ways:

    1. on the initiative of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), or
    2. when an individual or organization petitions FWS or NMFS to conduct a scientific review.

The Act is administered by two agencies—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, within the Department of Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, within the Department of Commerce. Out of the two, the FWS plays the predominant role because it is responsible for freshwater fish and all land species. NMFS has responsibility over ocean species.

Under the Act, federal agencies are forbidden to authorize, fund, or take any action that may jeopardize the continued existence of endangered or threatened species or their critical habitat.

The critical habitat of a species is the geographic area that the species needs for food, shelter, reproduction, or otherwise continued normal existence. The Act provides that an agency, corporation, or individual cannot harm, harass, or kill an endangered or threatened species without a permit.

The ESA provides for citizen suits in §1540(g). While the Act targets animal and plant protection, suits brought to stop actions harming animals or plants may also protect communities that share land with endangered, threatened, or presumed endangered or threatened species. These communities can use citizen suits to halt or slow development and other actions. It may be in the interest of the community to bring a citizen suit under the ESA because an action harming an endangered species in a populated area may also harm the human inhabitants in the area, even if the only legal recourse is to sue to protect the species, rather than the human community. See Citizen Suits for more about the process to bring a citizen suit.

You can search for endangered species in your area here.