Curious nature: threatened or endangered? Extinct or gone? Understand conservation terminology

Grizzly bears once roamed Colorado, but this is no longer the case after their disappearance. Grizzlies can still be found in other parts of the country.
Courtesy picture

We often hear about different animals that are threatened or endangered, but what exactly do these terms mean?

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 solidified these terms and their definitions in order to classify the different species into different levels of protection needed. Whether it’s being listed as an endangered species or being declared extinct, each of these terms has important implications for the management of a species and its long-term survival. Let’s explore each federal mandate to better understand where flora and fauna are when they carry these tags.

First, we will see what it means for a species to be threatened. This is the lowest ranking a species can have once it is recognized by the Endangered Species Act and begins to receive protection. A threatened species is a species likely to become endangered in the near future without intervention.

An example of a federally endangered species is the lynx. The number of lynx in their range has dropped dramatically as they suffer from ancient hunting practices, habitat fragmentation and other impacts. To slow or even halt this decline, the threatened designation of the lynx allows more conservation resources to be allocated to the protection of the species.

If a species continues to decline or is already in a more critical condition and needs more protection than warranted by the threatened designation, it may be classified as endangered. An endangered species is in danger of extinction in all or part of its known range. The black-footed ferret is considered the most endangered animal in the United States.

The purpose of listing a threatened or endangered species is to add additional resources and regulations aimed at maintaining the long-term viability of the species. Once a species is listed under the Endangered Species Act, it is reviewed every five years. At this point, the species may receive high protection or be downgraded depending on the effectiveness of ongoing conservation work. Species may be downlisted or removed entirely if it is shown that the species has been successfully conserved and no longer needs protection due to its current status.

A black-footed ferret climbs out of a tube after being brought to a ranch near Williams, Arizona. Black-footed ferrets are one of the most endangered species in the country.
Felicia Fonseca/AP File

However, if these increased conservation measures are not effective, species may slide closer to being designated extinct or extinct. When conservation efforts don’t work, a species can go extinct. Extirpation means that a species can no longer be found in an area he once lived. When species are extinct they may still be in the world, but in some areas they are absent and can no longer survive. This can affect many other species within this ecosystem by upsetting a delicate balance created by nature.

In Colorado, the grizzly has disappeared. It still exists in the country but is no longer found in Colorado. In contrast, extinction occurs when there are no living members of a species on the entire planet. For example, we can no longer find woolly mammoths anywhere on Earth. Extinction is a much more dramatic outcome and ultimately what conservation efforts aim to prevent.

Preventing extinction and therefore preserving biodiversity is key to environmental health and the ultimate goal of the Endangered Species Act. With increasing pressure from climate change, habitat loss and evolving competition from other species, more and more species are at risk of becoming extinct. Understanding the terminology attached to the conservation status of plant and animal species helps us understand the risk of permanently losing a species and what we need to focus on. Whether a species is healthy or on the verge of extinction, all plants and animals have value in our ecosystems.

Liv Irelan is a Walking Mountains Science Center naturalist who cares deeply about the future of wildlife and strives to help protect it.


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