what is the difference between an endangered species and a threatened species
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Endangered Species vs. Threatened Species: What's the Difference?

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Jan. 20 2021, Published 10:45 a.m. ET

The Endangered Species Act was first passed in 1973. The aim of that act was to protect all the plant and animal species that, for one reason or another, were close enough to extinction to warrant protection. Since then, the list has represented many different categories of endangered species, though many people interpreted these differences as somewhat arbitrary. Even today, the difference between endangered and threatened species may be more about unnecessary semantics than how severely in danger those species actually are. 

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what is the difference between an endangered species and a threatened species
Source: Getty Images

What did the Endangered Species Act accomplish?

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) changed the way the world viewed the somewhat unseen plight of many of these species and created a framework for environmental protection that has persisted into the modern day. States, countries, and local municipal governments all have their own ways of enforcing and rendering the core elements of the act itself.

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This has led to some problematic interpretations from time to time. Indeed, like so many good-natured laws, even the ESA has become mired in bureaucratic language and misinterpretation, which brings us back to our main question: What is the difference between an endangered species and a threatened species? 

what is the difference between an endangered species and a threatened species
Source: Getty Images
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What is the difference between an endangered species and a threatened species?

In many cases, the strictest definitions of the terms prevail. For instance, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, endangered is used to define any species that is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” Meanwhile, a threatened species is any species that is “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” So, an endangered species is closer to becoming extinct than threatened species are.

Endangered species could be extinct within a few years. They are on the very brink of extinction. Threatened species are just shy of that. The difference may lie in possibility more than anything else. A threatened species might bounce back without direct intervention, an endangered species probably will not — at least not without our help. Another main differentiation between endangered and threatened species has to do with what degree of protection they are afforded under the ESA.

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what is the difference between an endangered species and a threatened species
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How does the Endangered Species Act protect these species?

According to the National Ocean Service (NOAA), species that are considered endangered are automatically protected from certain actions. Those who harm, harass, collect, or kill them are subject to legal penalties under the law — though there are some limited exceptions. 

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Threatened species receive similar protections and prohibitions. The people who transport or even disturb these species are just as likely to be prosecuted as those who attack endangered species. In these cases, the differences lay mostly in the severity of the punitive measures that can be taken against the offenders. As with all laws of loose or varied interpretation, the punishment could be subject to mitigating circumstances. 

Therein lies the problem — if the crimes and punishment are subject to exceptions, mitigation, and different interpretations, what is actually being done to protect either category of near-extinct species? The answer is a tricky one. While many environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) do their best to fight for these species, the fate of far too many still hangs by a tenuous thread. 

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what is the difference between an endangered species and a threatened species
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How many species are on the endangered or threatened species list?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are more than 1,300 endangered or threatened species in the U.S. today. And while humanity is responsible for the bulk of these species’ problems, either through habitat destruction, pollution, or hunting, there are many natural causes that can contribute to a species categorization on the list. 

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Yet in a world ruled by humans, can any cause of near-extinction truly be considered natural? Disease, unnatural predation, climate change — all of these are caused, in some way, by humanity. Our impact on the planet is such that every other living thing survives by either our inaction or intervention. The ESA is in place because of us, but the species listed on it are there because of us, too.

If a global or even national consensus on the laws protecting these species is not reached, or if those laws continue to be mired in mutable bureaucratic gobbledygook, then before long, the endangered species on the list will be extinct, and the threatened species will surely follow. 

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