Terms of endangerment
Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Bred for success."
Species in the Wild
Endangered — An animal or plant species in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Endangered species such as the Mexican long-nosed bat and the masked bobwhite receive strict protection from harassment, capture or killing. (Violators face fines up to $50,000 and/or one year’s imprisonment.) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (or NOAA Fisheries) is required to designate "critical habitat" for the species, and other federal agencies must consult with them before approving projects, such as logging or gas drilling, that could adversely affect the species. Private landowners and land-users cannot alter a listed animal’s habitat in any way that would harm it. Listed plants are generally protected only on federal land.
Threatened — An animal or plant species likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Threatened species generally receive the same strict protections as endangered species, but the penalties for violations are substantially less (fines up to $25,000 and/or six months’ imprisonment). The northern spotted owl is threatened throughout its range in the Pacific Northwest, while the marbled murrelet, another bird that nests in old-growth forests, is threatened in California, Oregon and Washington, but not in Alaska.
Experimental Essential — An experimental population whose loss would appreciably reduce the species’ chances for survival in the wild. Species are released back into their home range and given the same protection as threatened species, but the government has flexibility to allow some killing, or "take." The experimental essential rule has never been used.
Experimental Nonessential — The most lenient of all endangered species classifications, experimental nonessential allows the government to release listed species without most of the usual protections. It is still against the law to kill most experimental nonessential animals, but land managers are not required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on actions that might harm the population, and there is no requirement to protect critical habitat. In recent years, this rule has been popular with the Fish and Wildlife Service, but it is controversial. The 1995 experimental nonessential reintroduction of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies, which allowed ranchers to shoot animals caught preying on livestock, launched a legal battle that is still rattling around the courts.
Safe Harbor — The safe harbor rule, introduced in 1995 by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, is designed to ease the pain for private landowners. It encourages ranchers, timber companies and others to manage their land to benefit rare species, but exempts them from new regulations and allows them to continue with practices, such as logging and homebuilding, that might lead to inadvertent killing of the species. As soon as the species crosses onto public land, however, it receives full protection as threatened or endangered. More than three dozen safe harbor agreements are in place, including ones for aplomado falcons in Texas, the Chiracahua leopard frog in Arizona, and the red-cockaded woodpecker in the Southeast.