50-year-old Endangered Species Act finally has a manual

Cover of the National Agricultural Law Center's Endangered Species Act manual for ag producers. (University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture image.)

A half-century after Richard Nixon signed it into law, the Endangered Species Act now has a user manual to help farmers, thanks to the National Agricultural Law Center.

Brigit Rollins, NALC staff attorney
Brigit Rollins, NALC staff attorney

Brigit Rollins, an attorney whose research for center focuses on environmental law, said she saw a significant need in farming for a guide to this historic and wide-ranging piece of legislation.

“The Endangered Species Act does impact agriculture and land use quite a bit, but it’s not always easy to understand how and why it does what it does,” Rollins said. “So, part of the point of this project is to answer those questions: ‘What is it?’ ‘What does it do?’ ‘How does it function?’ etc.”

Creating the 65-page Endangered Species Act Manual: A Practical Guide to the ESA for Agricultural Producers was no small task. After all, the document of law itself is 44 pages long.

“From start to finish, it took probably a year to a year-and-a-half,” she said.

The manual’s posting online in April was just the start of its life, Rollins said, adding that the “manual is going to be a living document, one that stays up to date.”

50 years

The law was passed at a time when environmental issues were at the forefront of public discussions. Eleven years before its passage, Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” described the effects of pesticide use on bird populations, including the bald eagle. In 1963, there were an estimated 417 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the 48 contiguous states.

Rollins said “there was a 10-year period between ‘60s and ‘70s, where we did see a lot of environmental law passed, including ESA, whose goal was to reduce—and hopefully stop—wildlife loss. Also during that decade, the EPA was founded in 1970, and in 1972, Congress passed another piece of landmark legislation, the Clean Water Act.

“With lots of species seemingly ready to become extinct, there was lots of support for the Endangered Species Act,” she said.

For the breadth of its reach in protecting endangered or threatened species, “it’s actually fairly simplistic in how it functions,” Rollins said. The law is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Not long after it went into effect, the Endangered Species Act hit the headlines when work on the Tellico Dam project in Tennessee was halted. The snail darter, which won protection under the young law, was discovered near the construction site. The dam had been in the planning stages since before World War II and was 90% complete when the controversy began. The dam was eventually exempted from the law and completed in 1980.

The law again made national news two decades later when the northern spotted owl—listed as threatened—prompted the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan. The plan reduced logging in federal forest lands in Oregon and other parts of the northwestern United States to preserve the owl’s habitat.

Today, the Endangered Species Act plays a significant role in agriculture. In 2022, the act prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to ban use of the herbicide Enlist in 11 Arkansas counties to protect the American Burying Beetle.

In June, the EPA rolled out a proposal that would limit pesticide use in the habitat of 27 listed species. 

Mention of product names does not imply endorsement by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.