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The Endangered Species Act grows up

One of the most powerful legal forces for protecting and conserving threatened species is 50 years old, and may be in need of an update. Explore Stanford research and insights related to endangered species and the Endangered Species Act.

Megan Morikawa, a former Stanford biology PhD student, examines an experimental coral nursery in American Samoa. (Image credit: Stephen Palumbi.)

On Dec. 28, 1973, Republican President Richard Nixon signed into law a suite of environmental regulations the like of which had never been seen before. Fifty years later, the Endangered Species Act remains a powerful force for protecting and conserving threatened species, but is it time for an update?

While the act has been fundamental in protecting species as they existed in the past, it must be adapted to better preserve ecosystems for the future, Stanford biologist Stephen Palumbi and environmental law expert Michael Wara write in a recently published perspective for the journal Science.

Palumbi, the Jane and Marshall Steel Jr. Professor of Marine Sciences at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, and Wara, director of the Stanford Climate and Energy Research Program, looked specifically at protections for corals, arguing that the act should be expanded to embrace new strategies, such as restoring reefs with naturally occurring corals that exhibit resistance to heat damage (read more about Palumbi’s work to ensure a future for coral reefs).

“The Endangered Species Act tries to keep pace but now faces a whole raft of tools it wasn’t designed for, like genetic engineering and interspecies hybridization,” said Palumbi, who is also an affiliate of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “The pressure for these advances comes from the fact that the cost of doing nothing has exploded with climate change.”

"Coral reefs are an important example of how we have to get involved, whether we like it or not, if we are to steward marine ecosystems into the latter half of the 21st century,” said Wara, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; a research fellow at the Program in Energy and Sustainable Development in Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. “The challenge is that the law we rely on - the Endangered Species Act - was written at a different time with a very different set of assumptions and values than these."

Stanford-led research has contributed important insight to our understanding of endangered species and ways to protect them, including developing approaches that could help detect changes in the distribution of endangered species, revealing the extinction rate is likely much higher than previously thought, and challenging a widely accepted theory that protecting threatened species is synonymous with protecting ecosystems. 

This collection features recent research and insights from Stanford experts on issues related to endangered species and the Endangered Species Act.

Jasper Ridge student summer projects highlight the preserve’s past and future

Undergraduate fellows and interns took part in forward-thinking projects at Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve this summer, including digitizing the Oakmead Herbarium and testing a wildfire management plan.

October 4, 2023

As glaciers disappear, alpine plants at risk of extinction

Beyond the ski slopes, one of the most iconic symbols of the Alps are the alpine flowers. These plants are not only beautiful--they are also used in liqueurs and medicines, and they form the foundation of the local food chains. But a recent study in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution shows that, although plant diversity may initially increase with glacier retreat, many of these species may soon become endangered.

January 29, 2021

Stanford legal expert discusses major environmental rollback

A recent executive order empowers federal agencies to override legal requirements for environmental reviews and community feedback related to major infrastructure projects. Intended to help kickstart the economy, the order could cause disproportionate damage to poor communities and communities of color.

June 11, 2020

Loss of land-based vertebrates is accelerating

In 2015, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich co-authored a study declaring the world’s sixth mass extinction was underway. Five years later, Ehrlich and colleagues at other institutions have a grim update: the extinction rate is likely much higher than previously thought and is eroding nature’s ability to provide vital services to people.

June 1, 2020

Stanford researchers discuss changes to Endangered Species Act

America’s signature legislation for saving species faces a major overhaul. Conservation and legal experts examine likely impacts of the new rules and legal options for challenging them.

September 26, 2019

Stanford experts discuss impacts of downsizing the Delta twin tunnels project

Two experts from Stanford’s Water in the West program explain the potential impacts on the future of water in California of the proposed plan to downsize the $17 billion Delta twin tunnels project.

February 14, 2019

Stanford biologists discuss border barrier’s potential ecological damage

Federal plans to complete a continuous wall along the U.S.-Mexico boundary would threaten the existence of numerous plant and animal species, Stanford researchers say. Paul Ehrlich and Rodolfo Dirzo look at the region’s unique natural ecosystems, and what they have to lose.

July 24, 2018

DNA Left by ocean animals provides rare glimpse of marine ecosystems

As ocean animals swim past, they leave behind DNA. Now, scientists have shown these genetic clues can be used as forensic markers to accurately and easily survey marine life in complex deep-water environments.

June 13, 2017

Scientists challenge theory on protection of threatened species

Instead of simply concentrating conservation efforts on threatened species, resource managers and policymakers should consider ecosystem-wide impacts, study's authors write.

July 30, 2014

New tool offers near real-time info about marine species

Scientists with Stanford's Center for Ocean Solutions propose using genetic techniques as a low-cost, quick way to collect near real-time knowledge of environmental conditions.

June 27, 2014

Media Contacts

Josie Garthwaite
Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability
(650) 497-0947;

Rob Jordan
Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment
(650) 721-1881,

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