Endangered Species Permits: Frequently Asked Questions

What activities are prohibited?

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) makes it unlawful to import or export; deliver, receive, carry, transport, or ship in interstate or foreign commerce in the course of a commercial activity; sell or offer for sale in interstate or foreign commerce; take (includes harm, harass, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect any wildlife within the United States); take on the high seas; possess, ship, deliver, carry, transport, sell, or receive unlawfully taken wildlife; remove and reduce to possession any plant from areas under federal jurisdiction; maliciously damage or destroy an endangered plant on areas under federal jurisdiction; and remove, cut, dig up, or damage or destroy any endangered plant in knowing violation of any state law or regulation or in the course of a violation of a state criminal trespass law.* These prohibitions apply to live or dead animals or plants, their progeny (seeds in the case of plants), and parts or products derived from them.

Some activities that might otherwise be prohibited are exempt. Other activities are allowed in accordance with permit provisions.

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What kinds of activities can permits authorize?

The activities authorized by permits differ depending on whether the species is listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA. An endangered species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A threatened species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.

For endangered species, permits may be issued for scientific research, enhancement of propagation or survival, and taking that is incidental to an otherwise lawful activity.

For threatened species, permits also may be issued for zoological, horticultural, or botanical exhibition; educational use; and special purposes consistent with the ESA.

A person may request a captive-bred wildlife registration from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to buy and sell within the United States live, non-native endangered or threatened animals that were captive born in the United States for enhancement of species propagation, provided the other person in the transaction is registered for the same species. A separate permit is needed to import or export such species. Captive-bred wildlife permits are not issued to keep or breed endangered or threatened animals as pets. Keeping protected species as pets is not consistent with the purposes of the ESA, which is aimed at conservation of the species and recovery of wild populations.

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What situations are exempt from the prohibitions of the ESA?


Specimens of ESA-listed species held in captivity or in a controlled environment on (a) December 28, 1973, or (b) the date of publication in the Federal Register for final species listing, whichever is later, are exempt from the ESA prohibitions against import or export or violation of any regulation pertaining to endangered or threatened species of fish or wildlife promulgated under the ESA, provided such holding and any subsequent holding or use of the specimen was not in the course of a commercial activity. (The ESA and our regulations provide that "commercial activity" is all activities of actual or intended transfer of fish or wildlife from one person to another person in the pursuit of gain or profit, including, but not limited to, the buying or selling of commodities and activities conducted for the purpose of facilitating such buying and selling. The ESA also provides, however, that exhibition of commodities by museums or similar cultural or historical organizations is not included in the ESA's definition of "commercial activity."). An affidavit and supporting material documenting pre-ESA status must accompany the shipment of listed species. The pre-ESA exemption does not apply to wildlife, including parts and products, offered for sale or other activities prohibited under the statute. In addition, any endangered or threatened specimens born in captivity from pre-ESA parents are fully protected and are not considered pre-ESA.


Antiques, including scrimshaw, may be imported into the United States if accompanied by documentation that shows the article is at least 100 years old and has not been repaired or modified with any part of an endangered or threatened species since December 28, 1973. Such antiques must enter through a U.S. Customs Service port. If the antique contains a species listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the shipment must be accompanied by a Pre-Convention Certificate.

Special Rules

For a species that is listed as threatened or as an experimental population, special rules may allow otherwise prohibited activities. Some foreign species that have special rules include several primates, the African elephant, Nile crocodile, and leopard. Some native species that have special rules include the Utah prairie dog, greenback cutthroat trout, and six sea turtle species.

Intrastate Commerce

Commercial activities that take place entirely in one state and involve legally acquired endangered or threatened species are not prohibited by the ESA. However, many states have their own laws that regulate activities involving protected species. Contact the appropriate state agency before undertaking activities involving endangered or threatened wildlife and plants.

Offer for Sale

Endangered and threatened species may be advertised for sale provided the advertisement states that no sale may be consummated until an interstate commerce permit has been obtained from the Service.


Prohibitions under the ESA do not apply to any endangered or threatened raptors legally held in captivity since November 10, 1978, or to any progeny, provided that they are possessed and banded under the terms of an MBTA permit and are identified in the earliest annual report required by permit. The bald eagle is protected by the MBTA and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA).

Seeds from Artificially Propagated Threatened Plants

No permits are required for activities involving seeds from artificially propagated specimens of threatened plants. However, seeds must be accompanied by a label stating that they are of cultivated origin.

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What other offices issue permits for endangered or threatened species?

The Service's International Affairs Program issues permits for foreign endangered and threatened species, and for import/export of native and foreign species. It is also responsible for issuing captive breeding permits and permits allowing the use of live specimens of listed species for conservation education.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has jurisdiction for whales, seals, and sea lions. NMFS also has jurisdiction for sea turtles in the water; the Service has jurisdiction on land. Jurisdiction varies between NMFS and the Service for anadromous fish such as salmon, trout, steelhead, and sturgeon. The Service has jurisdiction for listed marine mammals such as the West Indian manatee and southern sea otter, as well as all sea birds. View the list of endangered and threatened marine species under the jurisdiction of NMFS.

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What other laws apply?

Depending on the species involved, other requirements may need to be met under CITES, the MBTA, the BGEPA, the Wild Bird Conservation Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Lacey Act, and state or local laws.

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Close up of a California condor. Its pink featherless head contrasts with its black feathers.
We provide national leadership in the recovery and conservation of our nation's imperiled plant and animal species, working with experts in the scientific community to identify species on the verge of extinction and to build the road to recovery to bring them back. We work with a range of public...