Believe it or not, the original Illinois Endangered Species Act focused on species of potential global extinction, including leopards and other species native to Africa. Photo by Harsh Tank, Unsplash.

November 1, 2023

Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act Celebrates 50th Anniversary in 2023

In June 1972 the Illinois General Assembly passed the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act which was signed by Governor Ogilvie in August of the same year. The primary purpose of the act was to prohibit the transfer, sale, and possession of products or skins of animals in danger of extinction. It also created the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board which was charged with determining which species are endangered and it established penalties for violation of the state act. Slated for implementation on January 1, 1973, the start was delayed by Governor Ogilvie’s Executive Order until May 1, 1973, to allow for the appointment and organization of the newly created Endangered Species Protection Board who, along with the Illinois Department of Conservation, would be responsible for developing policies, regulations, and procedures for administering and enforcing the Act.

An alligator rests near the edge of a wetland.
Alligator in waiting at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Steve Hillebrand, USFWS.

The initial Illinois Act was focused on preventing the global extinction of animals and made it illegal to possess, sell or offer for sale any animal or the wild animal product of species listed as endangered under the Act without a permit issued by the Illinois Department of Conservation. Due to its’ focus on global extinction the initial Illinois list (which was specified in the act) included leopard, snow leopard, clouded leopard, tiger, cheetah, alligators, caiman, crocodiles, vicuna, red wolf, gray wolf, polar bear, mountain lion, jaguar, ocelot, margay, desert kit fox, swift fox, Pacific ridley turtle and green turtle as protected species in the state. “Wild animal product” included fur, hides, skin, teeth, feathers, tusks, claws or other body parts. Due to the initial focus on animal products the enabling legislation required three people who represented the fur industry to be among the Endangered Species Protection Board’s nine members.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a period of rapid evolution of endangered species protection at both the state and federal level. The Illinois act predates the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, which was enacted on December 28, 1973, but follows two prior federal bills aimed at protecting endangered species—the federal Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 and the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1969. The 1966 federal act gave the Secretary of Interior the authority to identify species of native fish and wildlife that were threatened with extinction and consolidated various categories of areas administered by the Department of Interior, such as wildlife refuges, game ranges, waterflow production areas, etc., into a National Wildlife Refuge System which would be the focus of the protections of the new act. The act stated that “No person shall knowingly disturb, injure, cut, burn, remove, destroy or possess any real or personal property of the United States, including natural growth, in any area of the System; or take or possess any fish, bird, mammal, or other wild vertebrate or invertebrate animals or part or nest or egg thereof within any such area.”

A collage of different plants and animals including a flowering shrub, a butterfly nectaring on a yellow cactus blossom, a small fish resting on a stone, a small brown bat hanging from rock, two male greater prairie chickens participating in a mating display, a small light yellow mussel on  top of pebbles, a large brown salamander, and a brown, and gray snake.
Current Illinois endangered and threatened species include (clockwise from upper right: regal fritillary, Indiana bat, fanshell mussel, eastern massasauga, hellbender, greater prairie-chicken, bluebreast darter and bigleaf snowbell bush.

Seventy-eight native U.S. species, including 3 amphibians, 36 birds, 22 fish, 14 mammals and 3 reptiles, were listed as endangered the following year (1967). The Endangered Species Protection Act of 1969 amended the 1966 act and was focused primarily on preventing the importation of endangered fish and wildlife and preventing the intrastate shipment of reptiles, amphibians and other wildlife taken contrary to State law. In 1970 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized a list of more than 250 species and subspecies threatened with worldwide extinction that were subject to the new protections.

The federal Endangered Species Act 1973 replaced the Endangered Species Preservation Act and established protections for fish, wildlife and plants, provided for interagency cooperation to avoid take of listed species, outlined cooperation with States, and implemented the provisions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). CITES is an international agreement between governments designed to ensure that international trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Since the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act preceded the federal act of 1973, it did not reference, or recognize, federally listed species (as it now does) which meant that the only species protected under state law at the time were those included on Illinois’ original 1972 list. That would remain the case until amendments to the state act were made in 1977.

Nineteen-seventy-seven would be a very active year for endangered species protection in the state. Having met just five times between their first meeting in July 1973 and February 1975, the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board would meet eight times in 1977 in a move to shift the focus of the Illinois act to protecting species native to Illinois. During that year a list of native Illinois species was developed and approved by the Board, amendments to the Illinois Act were drafted and approved by the General Assembly, and the state’s first public hearing on endangered species was held—all of which resulted in a list of 73 native animal species being listed as endangered or threatened in Illinois by year’s end (December 31, 1977). The newly amended law also automatically placed federally listed plants and animals on the Illinois list without notice or public hearing, removed the initial list of globally endangered species, added a second category of risk—threatened—and gave the Board the authority to list plants as well as animals. Delays in getting a plant list together in time for the initial public hearing would delay the first plant list until May 1980. While revisions to the state act in 1977 added plants and a threatened category, both were only listed and had no protections or prohibitions by regulation.

A close up of a delicate white flower with in a woodland.
The state-endangered ovate catchfly (Silene ovata) in flower. Photo by Chris Evans.

The initial list of endangered and threatened Illinois species was an outgrowth of work the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission had initiated in the late 1960s. The Commission, in cooperation with the Illinois Department of Conservation, Illinois Natural History Survey, Natural Land Institute, Illinois State Museum and Endangered Species Protection Board, had developed and been refining initial lists which ultimately served as the foundation for the first state lists. The collaborative work included workshops, literature searches, personal contacts, and museum searches of vertebrate collections and major herbaria to document the status of the species in the state. The work was partially funded by the Joyce Foundation.

Additional revisions to the Illinois act in 1985 (effective 1986) provided equal protection for endangered and threatened species, expanded the definition of animal to include invertebrates, expanded the definition of plant to include algae, fungi, bryophytes and ferns, added some protections for plants, and required the Board to review and revise the list at least every five years.

The 1985 amendments also established that “it is the public policy of all agencies of State and local governments to utilize their authorities in furtherance of the purposes of the Act by evaluating, through a consultation process with the Illinois Department of Conservation [Natural Resources], whether actions authorized, funded, or carried out by them are likely to jeopardize the continued existence of Illinois listed endangered and threatened species or are likely to result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated essential habitat of such species.”

The most recent amendments to the state Act were finalized in 2000 with the addition of a permit to allow incidental take of listed species when the taking is incidental to, and not the purpose of, the carrying out of an otherwise lawful activity. The consultation process, along with incidental take permits, currently form the proactive arm of endangered species protection in the state, identifying projects that have the potential to impact listed species and then working through ways to avoid, minimize and, where necessary, mitigate impacts caused by projects in ways that do not jeopardize the continued existence of the species within the state.

A collage of different animals including a white and brown barn owl in flight, a brown river otter resting on the river bank, a small brown and gray rat, and a dark brown and white bald eagle preparing to land on a tree branch.
Since establishment of the Illinois Endangered Species Act, some species that have recovered, and have been delisted, include (clockwise from upper right), river otter, bald eagle eastern woodrat and barn owl.

To date, a total of 671 native species of plants and animals have been listed as endangered or threatened in Illinois since the Act was created. The list has seen highs and lows, but most species have maintained populations in the state. Of the 671 species ever listed, 483 (72 percent) remain listed today. On the high side, 54 species have been delisted because their populations have recovered, or their populations have increased such that they are no longer considered at risk of extirpation in the state. Recovered species include bald eagle, barn owl, river otter and eastern woodrat. On the low, side 66 species have been delisted because they are considered extirpated (when an organisms no longer occurs in a particular geographic area) from Illinois (e.g., longjaw cisco, Bachman’s sparrow, white-tailed jackrabbit, American chestnut). Plants constitute a majority of extirpated species in the state (50 of the 66 extirpated species), most with very limited former distributions—often a single location.

Over its first 50 years, there’s no question that the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act has both directly and indirectly benefited species in the state. Directly by prohibiting take and trade of species on the list and indirectly by highlighting species that other laws such as the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act can focus on that collectively form a protection system that greatly increases the chances of long-term persistence of these species in the state.

Hopefully, 50 years from now we will be able to look back and find that once again, the vast majority of species on the list have persisted and remain a part of the state’s fauna and flora.

Jim Herkert served as the Listing Coordinator for the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board from 1990-2001. After leaving the Board’s staff he was appointed to serve on the Board in 2002 and continued until 2009. He remains a member of the Board’s Technical Advisory Committee for Birds. In addition to working for the Board Jim has also worked for The Nature Conservancy, Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Illinois Audubon Society. He is currently retired.

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