Endangered Species
Ecological Services

Listing and Critical Habitat | Overview

Photo of Miami blue butterfly by H.L. Salvato

Miami blue butterfly, a species that is a candidate for listing as endangered.

Photo credit: H.L. Salvato

Before a plant or animal species can receive the protection provided by the Endangered Species Act, it must first be added to the Federal lists of threatened and endangered wildlife and plants. The List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife (50 CFR 17.11) and the List of Endangered and Threatened Plants (50 CFR 17.12) contain the names of all species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, insects, plants, and other creatures that have been determined by the Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (for most marine life) to be in the greatest need of Federal protection.

A species is added to the list when it is determined to be endangered or threatened because of 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;
  • the natural or manmade factors affecting its survival

But how exactly does a species become listed under the ESA? The process is cumbersome, complex, and generally poorly understood. It can happen two different ways: through the petition process or through the candidate assessment process. The ESA provides that any interested person may petition the Secretary of the Interior to add a species to, or to remove a species from, the list of endangered and threatened species. Through the candidate assessment process, FWS biologists identify species as listing candidates.

For all the details, download the Listing fact sheet. [328KB]

So what does it mean to be listed?

Among the conservation benefits authorized for threatened and endangered plants and animals under the ESA are: protection from being jeopardized by Federal activities; restrictions on take and trafficking; a requirement that the FWS develop and implement recovery plans for listed species under U.S. jurisdiction; authorization to seek land purchases or exchanges for important habitat; and Federal aid to State and Commonwealth conservation departments with cooperative endangered species agreements. Listing also lends greater recognition to a species' precarious status, encouraging conservation effort by other agencies (foreign, Federal, State, and local), independent organizations, and concerned individuals.

Section 7 of the ESA directs Federal agencies to use their legal authorities to carry out conservation programs for listedspecies. It also requires these agencies to ensure that any actions they fund, authorize, or carry out are not likely tojeopardize the survival of any endangered or threatened species, or to adversely modify its designated critical habitat (ifany). When an agency finds that one of its activities may affect a listed species, it is required to consult with the FWS to avoidjeopardy. If necessary, "reasonable and prudent alternatives," such as project modifications or rescheduling, are suggestedto allow completion of the proposed activity. Where a Federal action may jeopardize the survival of a species that isproposed for listing, the Federal agency is required to "confer" with the FWS (although the recommendations resulting ofsuch a conference are not legally binding).

Additional protection is authorized by section 9 of the ESA, which makes it illegal to take, import, export, or engage ininterstate or international commerce in listed animals except by permit for certain conservation purposes. The ESA alsomakes it illegal to possess, sell, or transport any listed species taken in violation of the law. For plants, trade restrictions arethe same but the rules on "take" are different. It is unlawful to collect or maliciously damage any endangered plant on landsunder Federal jurisdiction. Removing or damaging listed plants on State and private lands in knowing violation of State law,or in the course of violating a State criminal trespass law, also is illegal under the ESA. In addition, some States have morerestrictive laws specifically prohibiting the take of State or federally listed plants and animals.

View or download recent listing notices or actions announcements in the Federal Register.

Learn more about candidate conservation.

Use our species search tools to find out how many and which species are listed, where they are listed, more about individual species, proposed and candidate species information, or other threatened and endangered species information.

Read about critical habitats that are essential to a species' conservation and how they relate to the listing process.

Access the full library of documents related to listing.

Read the Service's policies regarding listing.

Read a public advisory on submitting petitions under the ESA.

Last updated: July 15, 2013