Congress Passes the Endangered Species Preservation Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Congress passed a law for the conservation, protection, restoration, and propagation of native species of wildlife threatened with extinction. The law would be hailed by environmentalists but attacked by business interests when it interfered with commercial development.

Summary of Event

The Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966 was the first legislation in the United States specifically concerned with the protection and conservation of species threatened with extinction. It was the culmination of a long history of wildlife management and wildlife protection legislation, the earliest of which had been passed in the colonial period. In 1639, a law protecting deer went into effect in Newport, Rhode Island. The law was expanded in 1646 to apply to the entire colony, and similar legislation was passed in 1698 in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Deer, once abundant, had become seriously depleted, as had their forest habitat, and by 1750 most of the colonies had passed laws protecting deer or other wildlife. As early as 1626, the Plymouth colony passed an ordinance protecting trees; soon thereafter, most of the colonies in New England had laws against causing forest fires. The first closed season to protect freshwater fish was established in Massachusetts in 1652. Conservation;animals Endangered Species Preservation Act (1966) Environmental policy, U.S.;endangered species [kw]Congress Passes the Endangered Species Preservation Act (Oct. 15, 1966) [kw]Endangered Species Preservation Act, Congress Passes the (Oct. 15, 1966) [kw]Act, Congress Passes the Endangered Species Preservation (Oct. 15, 1966) Conservation;animals Endangered Species Preservation Act (1966) Environmental policy, U.S.;endangered species [g]North America;Oct. 15, 1966: Congress Passes the Endangered Species Preservation Act[08990] [g]United States;Oct. 15, 1966: Congress Passes the Endangered Species Preservation Act[08990] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 15, 1966: Congress Passes the Endangered Species Preservation Act[08990] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 15, 1966: Congress Passes the Endangered Species Preservation Act[08990] [c]Animals and endangered species;Oct. 15, 1966: Congress Passes the Endangered Species Preservation Act[08990] Dingell, John D. Udall, Stewart L. Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;environmental policy Lacey, John F.

After the colonies gained independence, conservation laws were enacted by the states to protect game animals as well as timber for naval reserves. In 1826, New York protected its ruffed grouse and Maine its deer and moose; in 1842, Maryland protected waterfowl. By 1799, Congress had approved the purchase and protection of timber reserves, and by 1831, there were reserves in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. By 1825, most of the eastern states were relatively heavily settled, land had been cleared for grazing stock and farming, and both game and timber were becoming scarce.

The first widespread popular interest in natural resource conservation began around 1850 and peaked in the 1890’s. After the first state fish and wildlife service was established in Massachusetts in 1865, other states soon followed suit. The founding of these state agencies coincided with the establishment of the concept that the individual states owned and were responsible for the wildlife within their borders. The legal confirmation of state ownership of wildlife was determined by decisions handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court between 1842 and 1896.

In 1900, however, the federal government took its first cautious step toward national regulation of wildlife with the Lacey Act Lacey Act (1900) . Using the federal government’s constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce, the Lacey Act prohibited the interstate transportation of any wild bird or mammal killed in violation of state law. The act also authorized the government to preserve, distribute, introduce, and restore wild bird populations where and when necessary. This was in response to the decline of birds such as the passenger pigeon, which became extinct in 1914, and the Carolina parakeet, which became extinct in 1918.

Another step was taken in 1918 with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) . Based on the government’s authority to enter into treaties with other nations, the act ratified a treaty between the United States and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) that determined federal authority for the custody and protection of migratory birds. The role of the federal government in protecting wildlife continued to expand through many subsequent laws, but none of them addressed the problem of species with seriously declining populations.

Early federal wildlife protection efforts emanated from the Department of Agriculture and Department of Commerce until, in 1939, wildlife management and protection was transferred to the Department of the Interior Department of the Interior, U.S. . In 1964, the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, U.S. , which was part of the Department of the Interior, inaugurated the Committee on Rare and Endangered Wildlife Species Committee on Rare and Endangered Wildlife Species , which issued the first federal list of rare and endangered species, identifying sixty-three vertebrate species. The Land and Water Conservation Fund Act Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (1965) of 1965 authorized the department to purchase habitat for the preservation of species threatened with extinction. Congress refused to fund these programs without clarification of the department’s legislative authority, so the legislation had negligible impact.

During the mid- to late 1960’s, a second significant conservation movement began in the United States, fueled by increased scientific knowledge about endangered species and growing public awareness and concern. Congress began to respond to the pressure from administrative experts and to recognize that the plight of endangered species was also a symbolic issue. The conditions were right for an expanded federal role in wildlife management and conservation.

In 1965, the staff of the Department of the Interior drafted legislation for a comprehensive program to protect, conserve, and restore wild populations of endangered species. The resulting bills, one in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate, were uncontroversial and passed easily, because almost everyone supported the concept, the scope of the legislation seemed limited, and no one realized the eventual impact. Among the seven conservation bills President Johnson signed into law in 1966 was the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the first significant measure to conserve wildlife species in danger of extinction.


The Endangered Species Preservation Act (Public Law 89-669) was signed into law on October 15, 1966. Previous acts had provided various kinds of protection for wildlife; the Endangered Species Preservation Act specifically protected species in danger of becoming extinct. The act represented further expansion of federal authority; this was, in fact, the only aspect of the law to undergo debate, because some considered it to conflict with states’ rights over wildlife. The consensus was, however, that the act addressed an area of wildlife management that game-oriented state agencies had been neglecting. Because of heightened environmental awareness on the part of both the public and Congress, the Department of the Interior was able to get the endangered species program funded and implemented.

The most significant effect of the 1966 act was the bridge it provided between the pre-1966 acts regarding federal wildlife management and post-1966 acts concerning endangered species. Before 1966, most wildlife management legislation was passed and enforced by state wildlife agencies, which concentrated on game species—mostly mammals, birds, and fish. The state agencies were funded primarily by state revenues from hunting and fishing licenses, and by the Pittman-Robertson and the Dingell-Johnson Acts, which imposed federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. State wildlife management basically benefited hunters and fishers, while federal legislation before 1966 was cautious and primarily concerned with agricultural pests and species of commercial interest.

The 1966 act was a significant first step in extending existing federal wildlife management authority to the protection of endangered species, and it prepared the way for the Endangered Species Conservation Act Endangered Species Conservation Act (1969) of 1969 and the Endangered Species Act Endangered Species Act (1973) of 1973, which was the most comprehensive endangered species legislation of its time anywhere in the world. The 1966 act provided for the conservation, protection, restoration, and propagation of selected species of native wildlife threatened with extinction. The primary method for accomplishing this was habitat acquisition, which was authorized and funded through the existing Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1964, among other laws. The 1966 act also encouraged federal agencies to assist the Department of the Interior in protecting endangered wildlife.

The determination that a species was threatened with extinction was made by the secretary of the interior on the basis of a set of vague criteria. Although the 1966 act did not define wildlife, it did prohibit the removal or possession of protected fish, birds, mammals, other wild vertebrates and invertebrates, nests, and eggs. Only about seventy-eight species were defined as endangered, most of them large, popular species that could be easily protected by the existing park and refuge system.

There was little immediate impact beyond the public exposure of the endangered species issue. Moreover, given the quickly maturing conservation movement of the late 1960’s, it soon became apparent that the 1966 act had serious limitations. Only native species were covered—there was no protection for foreign species—and in practice only birds and mammals were seriously considered. Enforcement of prohibitions against the taking of protected animals was weak and pertained only to federal lands, nor did the act restrict interstate commerce. The habitat protection effort, too, was weak, because once land was acquired for or designated as a protected habitat, the act had no provisions for actual protection beyond calling for cooperation with other federal agencies.

The short-term effect of the 1966 act was therefore minimal, but its long-term importance was demonstrated by the passage of the more authoritative 1969 and the even stronger 1973 endangered species acts. Several other acts and treaties also came into force, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Animal Welfare Act, African Elephant Conservation Act, Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere, and Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

The 1966 act also gave impetus to the concept of listing and thereby increasing public awareness of endangered species. The debate surrounding passage of the 1966 act and its successors served as a catalyst for increased concern and serious study of species declining toward extinction. The United States became a world leader in the conservation of endangered species. Conservation;animals Endangered Species Preservation Act (1966) Environmental policy, U.S.;endangered species

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bean, Michael J. The Evolution of National Wildlife Law. 3d ed. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997. A thorough and comprehensive history and review of wildlife law in the United States, beginning with British law, colonial law, and Indian treaty rights. The endangered species acts, as well as the court cases interpreting them, are examined in detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burgess, Bonnie B. Fate of the Wild: The Endangered Species Act and the Future of Biodiversity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001. Focused mainly on the specific history of the 1973 act, this study nonetheless sheds light on the evolution of general U.S. policy and legislation regarding endangered species. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clepper, Henry, ed. Origins of American Conservation. New York: Ronald Press, 1966. Reviews the early history of conservation and protection efforts in the United States concerning wildlife, forests, water, soil, range, and parks. A brief but useful and interesting book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Littel, Richard. Endangered and Other Protected Species: Federal Law and Regulation. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs, 1992. A concise historical review of U.S. wildlife law as well as a practical handbook for those who need to follow these laws in working with endangered and protected species.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lund, Thomas A. American Wildlife Law. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. A general, nontechnical discussion and review of English wildlife law used in colonial America, early American wildlife law, the constitutional limits of wildlife law, and state and federal wildlife law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Environmental and Public Works. A Legislative History of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as Amended in 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, and 1980. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1982. Overview of federal concern for endangered species and historical perspective on federal actions beginning with the 1966 act. Includes copies of the 1966, 1969, and 1973 acts, with more emphasis on the last. A good source of information on the congressional debate on the endangered species acts, drawing on letters and testimony for and against the legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yaffee, Steven L. Prohibitive Policy: Implementing the Federal Endangered Species Act. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982. A review of preservation and prohibitive policies using the endangered species acts as a case study. Includes extensive information not found in other sources on federal endangered species activities before and after the 1966 act.

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