The wild plants and animals with whom we share our planet are disappearing at an alarming rate. The Lanai hookbill, Las Vegas leopard frog, and Sexton Mountain mariposa lily now exist only as names on a growing list of extinct species. Indeed, many scientists view the current wave of species extinctions as unrivaled since the disappearance of the dinosaurs, more than 65 million years ago. In the United States alone, nearly one-third of our native species are at risk, and more than 500 plants and animals-including those mentioned above-already are, or may be extinct. If present trends continue, humanity stands to lose a large portion of its natural inheritance.
Extinction is the one environmental problem that is truly irreversible-once gone, these species cannot be brought back. For this reason, Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson terms the loss of our genetic and species diversity "the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us."
Why Care About Endangered Species?
There are many reasons for protecting endangered species, including our own survival. Many of our foods and medicines have been derived from wild species, and loss of these plants and animals could deprive humanity of life-saving drugs or improved agricultural crops. Wild species are also the foundation of our natural ecosystems, providing economically important services ranging from flood control to crop pollination. Beyond economics and human well-being, however, the extinction of these creatures also raises profound ethical and moral questions.
Each wild species depends on a particular habitat for its food and shelter, and ultimately for its survival. Over the past century, massive conversion of our natural lands and waters for agriculture, housing, and other uses has eliminated or degraded many of the habitats our plants and animals need to survive. Reflecting this concern, endangered species conservation efforts increasingly are being planned and carried out at the scale of whole ecosystems. Understanding and mapping ecosystems is therefore essential to protecting our imperiled wildlife. Invasive species-plants and animals introduced to our shores from elsewhere in the world-are also contributing to the decline of many of our native species. The impact of invasive species is now regarded as second only to habitat destruction as a threat to endangered species.
Endangered species are the focus of a number of federal, state, and international laws. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a powerful U.S. federal law designed to protect threatened and endangered species. By requiring federal agencies to explicitly take endangered species into account in their activities, the law has been particularly effective in promoting endangered species protection on federal lands. The ESA's regulations have been less effective, however, at safeguarding species on private lands, which harbor a significant number of the nation's threatened and endangered species.
What is NatureServe Doing?
At the heart of any endangered species conservation effort is the need for reliable and objective information. NatureServe and its member programs are leaders in the development of the scientific information people need to understand and protect our vanishing wildlife. In particular, we focus on:
- Assessing the condition of plants and animals to determine which are rare or imperiled, and in greatest need of conservation;
- Conducting field inventories to document where these species are found and to identify the habitats they need to survive; and
- Making our scientific information available to help target endangered species protection efforts and to help direct development activities away from sensitive habitats.
Additional NatureServe Information
- NatureServe Explorer
- A searchable database containing a wealth of information on all rare and endangered species of the United States and Canada.
- A searchable database including endangered birds and mammals of Latin America and the Caribbean.
- States of the Union
- A NatureServe report ranking U.S. states according to their imperiled and extinct species.
- Precious Heritage
- NatureServe's acclaimed book providing a comprehensive yet highly readable overview of endangered species in the United State and the reasons for their plight.
Other Key Resources
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
- The official list of plants and animals protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
- Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC)
- The official Canadian list of endangered species.
- IUCN Red List
- The IUCN Red List Programme, of which NatureServe is a partner, provides a searchable database for threatened species worldwide.
- Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)
- The official list of species regulated in international commerce.