U.S. protects endangered species [photo gallery]

The United States is protecting the environment, including wildlife species at risk of extinction.

President Richard Nixon signed the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA), which “prohibits the import, export, or taking of fish and wildlife and plants that are listed as threatened or endangered species.” The act also mandates the recovery of threatened and endangered species, which includes rehabilitating habitats so species can thrive.

Under the ESA, many species have been saved from the brink of extinction over the past 49 years, including the California condor, the grizzly bear, the Okaloosa darter, the whooping crane and the black-footed ferret.

However, more than 1,400 species in the United States alone are still threatened or endangered, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Learn about six endangered species and what the U.S. public and private sectors are doing to protect them.

Sea otters

2 sea otters swimming on their backs (© Charles Nolder/Alamy)
(© Charles Nolder/Alamy)

At the start of the 20th century, trappers in North America hunted sea otters for their fur. Around 60 years ago, there were only a few hundred sea otters left in existence. But now, thanks to the work of the U.S. public and private sector under the ESA, there are over 150,000 sea otters living along the Alaskan and Pacific Northwest coasts. The southwest stock of northern sea otters and the southern sea otter are still listed as threatened under the ESA.

Oahu tree snails

Snails on floating lamps at river (© Ankit Sharma/Alamy)
(© Ankit Sharma/Alamy)

The Oahu tree snail (PDF, 169 KB), under the entire genus of Achatinella, is listed as endangered in the state of Hawaii. Of the 41 species in the genus, 22 are thought to be extinct and 18 are near extinction. All species live in the Ko‘olau and Wai‘anae mountain ranges on Oahu. They live on the leaves of native trees and bushes, snacking on fungi. They are threatened by the introduction of nonnative species, both plant and animal, into their habit. Researchers at the University of Hawaii have successfully bred the snails in captivity to eventually release back into the wild.

Elkhorn coral

Fish swimming near elkhorn coral (© Oliver S./Alamy)
(© Oliver S./Alamy)

Elkhorn coral lives off the coast of Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and is a living, breathing organism that many aquatic species call home. Because of climate change, acidification, disease, land-based sources of pollution, and unsustainable fishing practices, elkhorn coral populations have declined by 97% over the past 40 years. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) breeds the coral in nurseries before planting them back in the wild, and works to protect their habitat.

Virginia big-eared bat

Bat hanging upside down in cave (© Nature and Science/Alamy)
(© Nature and Science/Alamy)

The Virginia big-eared bat is found in caves in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky. Because caves and other outdoor roosting locations have become more scarce, this bat species has suffered population declines and is considered endangered. The government of Virginia is restoring habitats and summer roosting locations so these nocturnal animals can flourish again.

Utah prairie dog

Utah prairie dog (©Johann Schumacher/Alamy)
(© Johann Schumacher/Alamy)

Utah prairie dogs went from an endangered species to a threatened species about three decades ago and are still protected under the ESA. More than 95,000 Utah prairie dogs roamed the plains of the state in the 1920s. By 1972, disease and drought killed all but 3,300. Thanks to recent conservation efforts, the prairie dog populations are thriving and conservation groups hope to reintroduce prairie dogs into their native areas across Utah.

Beluga whale

Beluga whale (© Antony Souter/Alamy)
(© Antony Souter/Alamy)

Did you know a beluga whale can live to be 90 years old? These gentle giants are known as the “canaries of the sea” because of the variety of noises they make, such as chirps and moos. There are five stocks of Beluga whales off the coast of Alaska, one of which, the Cook Inlet stock, is listed as endangered. NOAA is working with Alaska Native partners, the oil and gas industry and other stakeholders to develop and implement a recovery plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whale.