U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Forensics Laboratory

Forensics Lab Home
Science Professionals
Agents and Insectors
Students and Educators
Publications and ID Notes
The Feather Atlas
Lab Tour
Lab News
About Us
Contact Us
Site Map

Indian Peafowl Feathers. Credit: USFWS

Students and Educators

A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO U.S. WILDLIFE LAWS

Here, we provide a brief introduction to some of the major U.S. regulations, laws, and treaties that protect wildlife.  More information can be found at the links included on this page and elsewhere on the Forensics Lab website.

Lacey Act:  Originally enacted  in 1900, this is usually considered America’s first wildlife protection law.  One primary focus of the Lacey Act is prohibiting interstate trafficking in wildlife (including live or dead specimens or parts or products of all wildlife and fish and protected domestic plants)  that have been taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of a wildlife-related state, federal, foreign or tribal law or regulation.  The Lacey Act also prohibits making or submitting a false record, account or label for wildlife transported, or intended for transport, in interstate or foreign commerce. The Lacey Act provides misdemeanor and felony penalties and provides for forfeiture of both the wildlife involved in an offense, as well as vessels, vehicles, aircraft and equipment used to aid in the commission of a felony violation.   

The Laysan Albatross is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Credit: Chan Robbins.
The Laysan Albatross is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Credit: Chan Robbins.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA): This law protects almost all native North American birds, with the exception of upland gamebirds (quail, grouse, and their relatives).  Unless permitted by regulation [e.g., state hunting regulations], it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, barter, purchase, ship, export, or import any migratory birds … or any part, nests, eggs, or product thereof. This is a “strict liability” offense: the government need not prove intent on the part of the person or corporation that takes the bird. These prohibitions include the possession of feathers of protected migratory birds, even if these feathers were naturally molted. The MBTA provides a felony penalty for the sale or barter of listed species. View the complete list of MBTA species.

The Jaguar (Panthera onca) has been on the Endangered Species list since 1972. Credit: USFWS.
The Jaguar (Panthera onca) has been on the Endangered Species list since 1972. Credit: USFWS.

Endangered Species Act (ESA):  Probably America’s best-known wildlife protection law, the ESA currently lists 1925 species and populations of plants and animals that are in imminent danger of extinction (“endangered”), or which may become endangered in the near future unless preventative action is taken (“threatened”).  “Unless permitted by regulation, it is unlawful to import, export, take, transport, sell, purchase, or receive in interstate or foreign commerce any species listed as endangered or threatened.”  The ESA provides civil and misdemeanor criminal penalties for a knowing violation of its prohibitions. Unlike most other wildlife laws, the protections of the ESA may apply to habitat critical for the species’ survival.  The ESA also implements the CITES treaty, an international convention that regulates transnational commerce in species considered to be at risk due to trade (see below). View a complete list of ESA species.

The Polar Bear is protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Credit: Susanne Miller/USFWS.
The Polar Bear is protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Credit: Susanne Miller/USFWS.

Marine Mammal Protection Act:  This law extends protections to marine mammals, which include whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, walrus, manatees, sea otters, and polar bears.  No person shall take, import, transport, purchase, sell, offer to purchase or sell, any marine mammal or marine mammal product unless specifically exempted.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES):  CITES is an international treaty regulating trade in threatened and endangered wildlife and plants.  The United States is a signatory, along with 170 other countries around the world.   CITES establishes three levels of protection, which are summarized in three Appendices below, as quoted from the CITES website. 

  • “Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered…They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial.”
  • “Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.  International trade in specimens of Appendix-II species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit.”
  • “Appendix III is a list of species included at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation.”

Import into the U.S. of live or dead specimens, or parts or products made from them, without a CITES permit issued by FWS, is a misdemeanor violation of the ESA (see above) and is also frequently prosecuted as a felony violation of the anti-smuggling statute (18 U.S.C. § 545). View the complete lists of Appendix I, II, and III species at the CITES Appendices.

BACK TO TOP

U.S. Department of Interior Logo