bald eagle

Endangered Species Act

ESA Reg­u­la­to­ry Framework

The Endan­gered Species Act (ESA) pro­hibits the tak­ing, killing, injur­ing or harm­ing of species that have been list­ed as endan­gered or threat­ened based on the best sci­en­tif­ic and com­mer­cial data avail­able. The leg­is­la­tion also requires the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice (FWS) and the Nation­al Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice (NMFS) to des­ig­nate habi­tat essen­tial to the con­ser­va­tion of list­ed species.

The ESA is cred­it­ed with sav­ing mul­ti­ple icon­ic North Amer­i­can species from extinc­tion includ­ing the bald eagle, the Cal­i­for­nia con­dor, the pere­grine fal­con, the Amer­i­can alli­ga­tor, the griz­zly bear and the grey whale. Pro­po­nents of the law have found that the ESA’s pro­tec­tion of crit­i­cal habi­tats such as the Chesa­peake Bay, Shenan­doah Nation­al Park, the Ever­glades, the Pacif­ic North­west and the New Eng­land Coast pro­vide nation­al ben­e­fits of more than $1.5 tril­lion each year.


  • July 2018

    In July 2018, FWS and the Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion (NOAA), which hous­es NMFS, released pro­posed rules to weak­en the ESA’s imple­ment­ing reg­u­la­tions. The pro­posed rules attempt to inject eco­nom­ic analy­sis into list­ing deci­sions, despite the statute’s clear pro­hi­bi­tion on doing so. The pro­pos­als also attempt to estab­lish a reg­u­la­to­ry prece­dent that would effec­tive­ly pro­hib­it species impact­ed by cli­mate change from gain­ing pro­tec­tions by pro­hibit­ing FWS and NMFS from con­sid­er­ing whether a chang­ing cli­mate is threat­en­ing the con­tin­ued exis­tence of cer­tain species.

  • Sep­tem­ber 2018

    In Sep­tem­ber 2018, Mass­a­chu­setts Attor­ney Gen­er­al Mau­ra Healey and Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Xavier Becer­ra led a coali­tion of 10 attor­neys gen­er­al in sub­mit­ting com­ments opposed to the pro­posed rules. The com­ments not­ed that the pro­posed rules vio­late the Nation­al Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Act (NEPA) because the agen­cies have not stud­ied the pro­posed rules’ envi­ron­men­tal effects. The coali­tion also object­ed that the rules are arbi­trary and capri­cious in vio­la­tion of the Admin­is­tra­tive Pro­ce­dure Act (APA), as the rules cir­cum­vent unam­bigu­ous con­gres­sion­al intent.

  • August 2019

    In August 2019, FWS and NMFS final­ized a pack­age of rules that will weak­en the ESA’s imple­ment­ing reg­u­la­tions. Among oth­er unlaw­ful pro­vi­sions, the final rules insert con­sid­er­a­tion of eco­nom­ic impacts into list­ing deci­sions, even though the ESA is clear that the deci­sion to list a species must be made sole­ly” on the basis of science.

  • Sep­tem­ber 2019

    In Sep­tem­ber 2019, Mass­a­chu­setts Attor­ney Gen­er­al Healey, Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra and Mary­land Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bri­an Frosh led a coali­tion of 18 attor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing a law­suit chal­leng­ing the FWS and NMFS pack­age of final rules weak­en­ing ESA’s implant­i­ng reg­u­la­tions. The chal­lenge, in fed­er­al dis­trict court in Cal­i­for­nia, not­ed that the rules vio­late the plain lan­guage and pur­pose of the ESA, the statute’s leg­isla­tive his­to­ry and bind­ing judi­cial prece­dent inter­pret­ing the ESA. The attor­neys gen­er­al also point­ed out that the final rules pack­age also vio­lates NEPA because the rules failed to con­sid­er and dis­close the sig­nif­i­cant envi­ron­men­tal impacts asso­ci­at­ed with the rules. In Octo­ber 2019, Michi­gan Attor­ney Gen­er­al Dana Nes­sel and Wis­con­sin Attor­ney Gen­er­al Josh Kaul joined the now 20 state coali­tion of attor­neys gen­er­al chal­leng­ing the weak­ened ESA regulations.

  • May 2020

    In May 2020, the fed­er­al dis­trict court in Cal­i­for­nia ruled in favor of the attor­neys gen­er­al in deny­ing a motion from FWS and NFMS to dis­miss the state-led law­suit. The court denied the motion, find­ing that the states have stand­ing to chal­lenge the pack­age of final rules weak­en­ing ESA’s imple­ment­ing reg­u­la­tions and that the chal­lenge to the final pack­age of rules was ripe for review.

  • Jan­u­ary 2021

    In Jan­u­ary 2021, the coali­tion of attor­neys gen­er­al filed a motion for sum­ma­ry judg­ment in the lit­i­ga­tion chal­leng­ing the final rules. The motion for sum­ma­ry judg­ment request­ed that the court vacate the rules pack­age as vio­lat­ing the ESA, APA, and NEPA.

Endan­gered Fish


  • Octo­ber 2019

    In Octo­ber 2019, FWS and NMFS issued bio­log­i­cal opin­ions under the ESA on the effects of fed­er­al water exports from California’s Cen­tral Val­ley Project (CVP) on fish list­ed as endan­gered or threat­ened resid­ing in the Sacra­men­to Riv­er and San Joaquin Riv­er water­sheds. Despite recent data demon­strat­ing extreme­ly low lev­els for the list­ed species, these opin­ions con­clude that the water projects would not jeop­ar­dize the con­tin­ued exis­tence of these species.

  • Feb­ru­ary 2020

    In Feb­ru­ary 2020, Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra filed a com­plaint in fed­er­al dis­trict court in Cal­i­for­nia against the FWS and NMFS for vio­lat­ing the ESA, APA and NEPA in the Ser­vices’ fail­ure to pro­tect endan­gered fish species from fed­er­al CVP oper­a­tions. The law­suit asserts that the bio­log­i­cal opin­ions unlaw­ful­ly fail to pro­tect endan­gered species and habi­tats that are impact­ed by CVP operations.

Nation­al Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Act Implementation

The Nation­al Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Act (NEPA) is a foun­da­tion­al envi­ron­men­tal statute that requires that fed­er­al agen­cies con­duct envi­ron­men­tal reviews pri­or to under­tak­ing major fed­er­al actions – such as con­struct­ing a high­way – that sig­nif­i­cant­ly affect the envi­ron­ment. NEPA reviews pro­vide the pub­lic the oppor­tu­ni­ty to offer mean­ing­ful input on pro­posed fed­er­al ini­tia­tives, and often require that the rel­e­vant agen­cies adopt mea­sures to mit­i­gate the impact of projects on com­mu­ni­ties, wildlife and nat­ur­al resources.

Under NEPA, the Coun­cil on Envi­ron­men­tal Qual­i­ty (CEQ) is tasked with coor­di­nat­ing NEPA reviews across fed­er­al agen­cies to ensure that a con­sis­tent reg­u­la­to­ry approach is used in con­duct­ing the envi­ron­men­tal reviews. 


  • July 2020

    In July 2020, CEQ pub­lished a final rule to update NEPA imple­men­ta­tion reg­u­la­tions. The rule upends the long­stand­ing require­ment that fed­er­al agen­cies com­pre­hen­sive­ly eval­u­ate the impacts of their actions on the envi­ron­ment and pub­lic health. More infor­ma­tion about CEQ’s July 2020 NEPA imple­men­ta­tion rule can be found here (“NEPA Implementation”).

  • August 2020

    In August 2020, Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son and Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra filed a law­suit, along with 20 oth­er attor­neys gen­er­al, chal­leng­ing the final rule in a Cal­i­for­nia fed­er­al dis­trict court. The fol­low­ing month, Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra and Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Fer­gu­son led the coali­tion in fil­ing a notice of intent to sue CEQ for vio­lat­ing the ESA in issu­ing the July 2020 rule. The notice of intent to sue will allow the coali­tion to amend its August 2020 com­plaint against CEQ to include ESA-based caus­es of action. The notice of intent to sue points out that CEQ failed to con­sult as required under the ESA with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice and Nation­al Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice on the July 2020 rule’s like­ly impact on fed­er­al­ly list­ed endan­gered and threat­ened species.