10 iconic animals that were at risk of extinction but rebounded after the Endangered Species Act passed 50 years ago

  • The Endangered Species Act of 1973 passed and become law 50 years ago.

  • Many protected species have been saved from extinction or even rebounded past needing protection.

  • It's estimated that the ESA has saved 99% of its  protected species from extinction.

Fifty years ago, in a moment of bipartisanship that's hard to imagine today, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, comprehensive legislation aimed at saving animal and plant species at risk of going extinct.

The bill, signed by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1973, declared that the fish, wildlife, and plants that made up the US were of "esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our nation and its people." The ESA recognized that without action, many of these species would go extinct.

More than a thousand species have been listed as threatened or endangered and received protection under the act. Though the ESA has become controversial, a study published in 2019 credited it with saving 99% of listed species from extinction.

Some species have even recovered beyond needing protection, and have been delisted under the act. Other protected species remain at risk but have recovered significantly from their record low numbers that preceded their ESA listing.

Here are ten iconic animal species with populations that have been saved or bounced back since being listed as endangered.

Bald eagle

A bald eagle sits in a tree in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, Alaska October 8, 2014.   REUTERS/Bob Strong/File Photo
A bald eagle sits in a tree in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, AlaskaThomson Reuters

The bald eagle has been the national bird of the US since 1782, so almost its entire existence as a country. In the early 1700s, it's estimated there were around 400,000 eagles in the lower 48.

But by the mid-1900s, bald eagles were on the verge of extinction due to illegal shooting, habitat destruction, and contamination of their food by the insecticide DDT. In 1963, only 417 nesting pairs of eagles were known to exist in the US.

Bald eagles were first listed as endangered in 1967 under the law that preceded the ESA. After steps were taken to save it — including banning DDT — and the species made a robust recovery.

By 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the ESA list of threatened and endangered species. As of 2020, there were an estimated 71,400 breeding pairs in the US, and 316,700 individuals.

American alligator

Alligator on a log in water
Alligator mississippiensis, Everglades National Park, FloridaNNehring/Getty Images

Scientists say the American alligator has roamed the Earth for more than 150 million years, even managing to avoid going extinct when the dinosaurs did 65 million years ago.

But by the 1950s and '60s, the species seemed to have met its match in humans and was nearly wiped out, largely due to poorly regulated hunting and habitat destruction. It was listed as endangered throughout the South in 1967 and hunting was banned.

By 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined the species had fully recovered, and it was removed from the endangered list.

Grizzly bear

A large grizzly bear with three subs in field of wildflowers
Grand Teton National Park's famous bear, Grizzly 399, along with three cubs, in the fields near Pilgrim Creek.Troy Harrison/Getty Images

Some 50,000 grizzly bears once roamed the West, from the Pacific coast to the Great Plains. But predator control efforts and habitat destruction nearly eliminated the iconic North American animal.

When grizzly bears were protected under the ESA in 1975, there were as few as 600 bears remaining in the lower 48.

But after decades of recovery efforts, the bears have rebounded. There are now believed to be 2,100 grizzly bears, primarily in the ecosystems around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.

While they are still protected under the ESA, the Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing if some populations in Montana and Wyoming have recovered enough to warrant delisting.

Humpback whale

Humpback whale 50
Guests will be instructed on how to behave with the whales.Black Tomato

Humpback whale populations were decimated by commercial whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries, falling to a low of about 10,000 individuals throughout the world's oceans.

They were listed as endangered in 1970. Thanks to those protections and global conservation efforts concerning whaling, humpback numbers have recovered to an estimated 80,000 whales.

Some population have been removed from the ESA, but others remain protected as humpback still face threats like vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, and underwater noise.

Florida manatee

James R.D. Scott/Getty Images

The Florida manatee is an iconic animal of the sunshine state, but they were at risk of extinction largely do to humans and collisions with boats.

They were listed as endangered under the ESA in 1973. In 1991, aerial surveys showed there as as little as 1,267 manatees remaining in Florida. Today, there are more than 6,300 in the state, and a total of 13,000 throughout their range.

The manatees were reclassified from endangered to threatened in 2017, but remain protected and still face threats to their survival.

Gray wolf

gray wolf

Gray wolves once roamed nearly all of North America, but their populations were decimated by hunting and governmental predator control efforts. By the mid-1900s, the only remaining wolves in the lower 48 could be found in Minnesota.

Gray wolves were listed under the ESA in 1974, and some populations have since began to increase. There are around 4,200 wolves in the Great Lakes region and around 2,000 to 3,000 in the North Rockies. Wolves have even been successfully reintroduced to Yellowstone.

After the Trump administration delisted the entire species in 2020, a federal judge in 2022 ruled the Fish and Wildlife Service had acted improperly, thus restoring most protections.

Today, all gray wolves in the lower 48 remain protected under the ESA, except for the population in the Northern Rocky Mountains.

California condor

California condor with colorful pink, red, orange, and yellow skin and stark black feathers
California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), Grand Canyon, ArizonaBeth Morris/Getty Images

The California condor is one of the largest flying birds in the word, and used to occupy the skies from California to Florida and Canada to Mexico.

It first received federal protection in 1967, but by 1982 there were only 22 condors surviving in the wild. In order to save the species from extinction, the remaining birds were captured, removed from the wild, and put into a breeding program.

In 2004, the first recovery program successfully hatched its first chick in the wild, and in 2008 there were more condors in the wild than in captivity for the first time since the breeding program began.

Today, there are over 300 free-flying condors in the wild.

Peregrine falcon

Close-up of a gray, black, and white peregrine falcon with bright yellow feet, on its beak, and around its eyes taking off from a cliff edge
Close-up of bird flying outdoors,Long Beach,California,United States,USABoris Droutman/Getty Images

There were an estimated 3,875 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons in the North America before the 1940s. But in part due to the impact of DDT on the environment, by 1975 the species was down to only 324 known nesting pairs in the US.

Peregrine falcons were listed as endangered in 1970 but have since rebounded, in part due to the banning of DDT and a recovery program that led to 6,000 birds being reintroduced into the wild.

The peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered list in 1999. Today, there are around 3,000 breeding pairs in North America.

Whooping crane

White crane with red and black face is standing on one leg in a marsh
Whooping Crane Wading in Marshjferrer/Getty Images

The whooping crane is unique to North America and is the tallest bird on the continent, with males reaching nearly 5 feet tall.

Over 10,000 whooping cranes once lived in North America, but shooting and habitat destruction took a toll on the species. The whooping crane was listed as endangered in 1970 and has made a steady recovery since.

In 1941, there were an estimated 21 individuals in the wild. Today, that number is more than 500.

Black-footed ferret

Close-up of a brown and white ferret on dirt
A Federally Endangered Black-footed Ferret on the PlainKerry Hargrove/Getty Images

The black-footed ferret is the only species of ferret native to the Americas. In the late 1800s, there were approximately half a million to a million roaming the land, but by the late 1950s, they were presumed to be extinct due to habitat destruction.

But in 1964, a small group of ferrets were discovered in South Dakota and were entered into a breeding program that ultimately proved unsuccessful. In 1979, what was believed to be the last black-footed ferret alive died in captivity. Again, the species was feared extinct.

Meanwhile, the species were listed as endangered in 1967.

In 1981, some black-footed ferrets were rediscovered in Wyoming and another breeding and recovery program was initiated, with the plan to reintroduce them to the wild. Currently, captive breeding facilities are still working on recovering the species.

They have been reintroduced to several locations, but the populations face threats of disease, drought, declining genetic fitness by inbreeding, and loss of genetic diversity, as well as praire dog poisoning and shooting.

There are approximately 300 black-footed ferrets in the wild today, and the efforts to save the species that was twice thought extinct are ongoing.

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