Life appeared on Earth about 550 million years ago, and since then, countless species have appeared and then died off, from the dinosaurs to the woolly mammoth. But scientists estimate that since humans appeared on this planet a million years ago, plants and animals are disappearing from our planet 1000 times greater than before. As the human population tops 6 billion, we are facing a huge leap in extinctions over the next 100 years.
Faced with such a serious challenge, conservationists are focusing on areas of the planet which have a particularly rich diversity of species. The Amazon rain forest contains half of all species on the planet, and is being developed at a rate of 38 million acres a year. Coral reefs, which support an enormous variety of marine life, are endangered by pollution washed out to sea from inland farms and factories. The United States contains many biologically rich areas. Most of these important lands are protected as part of the public domain.
Caribou National Forest, Idaho Courtesy USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Region
Endangered Species Act of 1973
The United States took a big step towards saving important plants and animals when, in 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. The Act first of all identifies plants and animals whose species are either entirely in danger of becoming extinct (classified as endangered), or plants and animals whose individual populations are in danger of dying off (classified as threatened). Next, the law provides a framework for federal and state governments to work with nonprofit agencies, private companies, and individual landowners to identify and protect crucial wildlife areas. Finally, it requires that all possible measures be taken for a full recovery of the endangered and threatened species, through breeding, habitat rehabilitation, reintroduction, and other programs.
No other nation has passed a law similar to the Endangered Species Act, but many foreign governments and non-governmental organizations such as the Peregrine Fund and Conservation International are working together to protect critical habitats worldwide.
Snow geese taking flight from a wetlands near Burns, Oregon Courtesy Bureau of Land Management, Oregon State Office