As the Endangered Species Act (ESA) celebrates its 40th anniversary, it is both criticized as an outdated piece of legislation that does more harm than good and praised as the only measure preventing massive species extinction. Both of these contradictory views of the ESA cannot be simultaneously true. However, an in-depth analysis of the Act’s listings and delistings shows that not only is the ESA’s rate of delisting phenomenally low, but less than half of the species delistings were actually do to recovery efforts.   

Since the Act’s inception in 1973, over 2,200 species have been listed as endangered or threatened. In the four decades of conservation efforts under the ESA, a grand total of 57 species have been delisted, making the current total of species listed as endangered or threatened 2,160.  This gives the ESA a 2.6% delisting rate. This is an astoundingly low rate of success, particularly for a program with a growing cost.

Of these 57 delisted species, not all of them have been delisted due to recovery efforts by the federal government under the ESA. A closer look at the individual species paints a much different picture:

    • 10 were delisted because of extinction
    • 18 were delisted because of “data errors”
    • 5 were recovered because of the ban on DDT
    • 3 exist only in Australia and were recovered because of a change in Australian policies
    • This leaves 21 species that have actually been recovered, and none tied directly to federal government efforts under the ESA 

Not only does the ESA discourage conservation efforts on private land where the majority of endangered species and their habitats are found, but the Act has categorically failed to protect endangered and threatened species through recovery and eventual delisting.