From the snail darter and the Tellico Dam to the spotted owls and old–growth forest loggers, the Endangered Species Act has seen its share of controversy. Often since it was enacted on Dec. 28, 1973, the ESA has been called the world’s most powerful law for species preservation, and with that title comes a lot of attention.

While the ESA has been credited with saving 99 percent of listed species from extinction and has put hundreds more on the road to recovery, it is still misunderstood by many. So, as the act celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2013, let’s set the record straight.

Today, the ESA protects 1,400 domestic species and 614 foreign species. The story behind the decline of these species is much the same—one of habitat loss and degradation. The inevitable development pressures that accompanied our growth into a nation of more than 300 million people have threatened the health and well–being of native fish, wildlife and plants. Among other things, the ESA is trying to protect habitat and ecosystems that formed over eons and to reverse species declines that, in some instances, have been 200 years in the making.

One of the most important things the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does for endangered species is to conserve their habitat. That’s where the National Wildlife Refuge System comes in.

Fifty–eight refuges were established to protect endangered species; 248 refuges are home to more than 280 endangered or threatened species. Conserving the Future makes clear that endangered species recovery is central to the Service’s vision for planning and strategic growth of the Refuge System. The vision recognizes refuges’ “key role in the recovery of several species, including the bald eagle, Aleutian Canada goose and brown pelican.”

This issue of Refuge Update celebrates ongoing endangered species conservation work that refuges are doing—such as for the namesake species at Mississippi Sandhill Crane Refuge, for Moapa dace at Moapa Valley Refuge in Nevada, for the Delmarva fox squirrel at East Coast refuges and for the blunt–nosed leopard lizard at Pixley Refuge in California.

Without the Refuge System, many endangered species would not be recovering. Endangered species recovery is complex and difficult work, often requiring substantial time and resources. Many of the species that have fully recovered were those originally listed under federal protection 40 years ago, including the American alligator, bald eagle and gray wolf.

But the number of species that have recovered and can be delisted is not a complete measure of the ESA’s success. Stabilizing a species is also a success. So is preventing a species from going extinct. Since 1973, 25 species have recovered to the point that they no longer need ESA protection, two more have been proposed for delisting, and nine more have recommendations for delisting. In addition, 25 species have been reclassified, three are currently proposed and 39 have recommendations for reclassification from endangered to the less critical category of threatened. Plus, 647 species are considered stable or improving. Hundreds of others have been prevented from going extinct.

Each one of these outcomes is a real measure of success.

Successes will continue because, as recommended in Conserving the Future, the strategic growth of the Refuge System will be guided by priorities identified in threatened and endangered species recovery plans that have identified land acquisition as a conservation component.

Valerie Fellows is a communications specialist in the Endangered Species Program. A state–by–state listing of endangered species success stories is at