For much of the nation’s history, the federal government played virtually no role in safeguarding, and regulating human interactions with, wildlife. Today, far-reaching federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), extensively regulate when, how, and where human activities may affect many species of wildlife and their habitats. How did this dramatic expansion of federal wildlife law evolve, and what are its strengths and weaknesses at the present time? This presentation will address that question in three parts. First, an explanation of the primary role that States played in wildlife regulation throughout most of the nation’s history. Second, a discussion on the three major Supreme Court decisions in the 20th century that construed the Constitution in such a manner that it paved the way for an expansive federal role in wildlife protection and regulation. Third, a focus on three important illustrations of this major federal role (ESA, MMPA, and MBTA), by describing the principal provisions of these conservation laws, as well as some of the limitations and loopholes that hamper their ability to effectively protect wildlife from myriad human impacts.
Director of Litigation,
Center for Biological Diversity
Lecturer on Law,
Harvard Law School