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Federal Laws and International Treaties

 There are many federal laws that protect wildlife, some with a very specific purpose, such as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and others that cover a wide range of activities, such as the Lacey Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. One of the most important of these laws in preserving domestic wildlife is the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) embodies the desire of the federal government to conserve endangered and threatened species and to conserve their critical habitat. This law authorizes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to determine which species should be included on the lists of endangered and threatened species and when they should be removed. It requires the FWS to develop and implement recovery plans for each species on the list and to cooperate with the states to monitor how effective the plans have been.

A recent landmark decision by the FWS to include chimpanzees on the list of endangered species, marked the beginning of the end of invasive research on chimpanzees. The final rule, issued on June 12, 2015, now lists both wild and captive chimpanzees as endangered under the ESA.  This ruling came as the result of a petition filed by a coalition of animal advocacy groups in 2011. At that time, chimpanzees had a unique position under the ESA as they were the only species with a split listing: chimpanzees in the wild were placed on the endangered list while captive chimpanzees were on the threatened list. Moreover, captive chimpanzees also had a special exception to their threatened species status that removed them from any protections under the ESA. In making its rule final, the FWS found that there is no legal justification for a separate classification for animals of the same species. Furthermore, the endangered species listing does not permit the special exception that was applied to the threatened species listing.

Another recent ruling of the ESA, on December 21, 2015, added lions to the list of endangered species. Lions were under consideration for this designation when Cecil was hunted and killed by a U.S. dentist after being lured from his preserve. As an endangered species, permits will now be needed to import any lion trophy, and the FWS has stated that it will exercise its full authority to deny future permit applications if an applicant has previously been convicted of or pled guilty to violations of wildlife laws.

There are additional federal laws and international treaties that impact wildlife, protect native populations and migrating birds passing through the country, and even committing the U.S. to help in the conservation of species in Africa and elsewhere.

  • Airborne Hunting Act prohibits the harassment or taking of wildlife from any airborne craft (exceptions for federal and state officials and anyone granted a state permit)
  • Antarctic Conservation Act conserves and protects the native mammals, birds, and plants of Antarctica and the ecosystems of which they are a part.
  • Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prohibits the harassment of, trade in or taking of bald and golden eagles without a permit for scientific, exhibition or religious purposes. The regulations also provide for issuance of permits for the incidental taking of birds or their habitat for commercial purposes.
  • Lacey Act enforces civil and criminal penalties for the illegal trade of animals and plants. It regulates the import of any species protected by international or domestic law and prevents the spread of invasive, or non-native, species. The law covers all fish and wildlife and their parts or products, plants protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and those protected by State law. It is unlawful to import, export, sell, acquire, or purchase fish, wildlife or plants that are taken, possessed, transported, or sold: 1) in violation of U.S. or Indian law, or 2) in interstate or foreign commerce involving any fish, wildlife, or plants taken possessed or sold in violation of State or foreign law.
  • Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the taking and importing of marine mammals and marine mammal products.
  • Multinational Species Conservation Acts serve to protect specific populations of animals through international treaties with other countries. These Acts include the African Elephant Conservation Act of 1988, the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act of 1998, the Asian Elephant Conservation Act of 1997, the Great Ape Conservation Act of 2000 and the Marine Turtle Conservation Act of 2004.
  • National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act requires that the Wildlife Refuge System management includes a strong and singular wildlife conservation mission, maintains the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of the System, recognizes that wildlife-dependent recreational uses involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation, when determined to be compatible, are legitimate and appropriate public uses of the Refuge System.
  • Wild Bird Conservation Act limits imports of exotic bird species to ensure that their populations are not harmed by international trade.
  • Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act aims to protect wild free-roaming horses and burros from capture, branding, harassment, or death.It gives the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service responsibility for protecting and managing wild free-roaming horses and burros as components of the public lands and maintain ecological balance on public lands, including the designation and maintenance of specific ranges on public lands as sanctuaries to protect wild horses and burros.

International Treaties

  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is the only treaty to ensure that international trade in plants and animals does not threaten their survival in the wild. A State or country that has agreed to implement the Convention is called a Party to CITES. Currently there are 181 Parties, including the United States. Each Party must regularly submit reports on how they are implementing the Convention, including information on any legislative and regulatory changes, as well as law enforcement, permitting, communications and administrative matters.
  • Migratory Bird Treaty Act implements various treaties and conventions between the U.S. and Canada, Japan, Mexico and the former Soviet Union for the protection of migratory birds. Under the Act, taking, killing or possessing migratory birds is unlawful.