Criminal Law - Federal

What Are the Penalties for Killing an Endangered Species?

If you are out hunting ducks, deer, or wild hogs, one wrong shot could mean that you hit something other than your intended target. Killing a species that turns out to be an endangered species could mean serious federal criminal charges.

If you are accused of killing an endangered species, talk to a federal criminal defense attorney about your legal rights.

What Is the Endangered Species Act?

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was created not to just protect wildlife like the American bald eagle, but also plant species like the endangered lady slipper orchid and species of fish like the Atlantic halibut or sturgeon.

Killing an endangered animal or damaging a critical habitat can lead to federal criminal charges.

What Types of Animal Species Does the Endangered Species Act Protect?

The ESA protects “endangered” and “threatened” species of animals, fish, and plants from becoming extinct due to hunting, trapping, and other acts. The law also protects their ecosystems from any economic development that threatens their habitats. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the protection of these species.

What Makes an Animal ‘Endangered’ or ‘Threatened’?

To gain protection under the Endangered Species Act, an animal has to be considered endangered or threatened. An endangered species includes any species in danger of extinction across “all or a significant portion of its range.” A threatened species is any species that is “likely” to soon become an endangered species.

Factors taken into consideration when determining if a species needs ESA protection include:

  • A threat of or actual loss of a species’ habitat
  • Overusing the species for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes
  • A disease that threatens the species

Is it Illegal to Take, Sell, or Shoot an Endangered Species?

Yes. Under the ESA, it is illegal to take any endangered or threatened animal, plant, or fish species from its critical habitat.

To “take” in this case means to do or attempt to do any of the following with covered species:

  • Harass
  • Harm
  • Pursue
  • Hunt
  • Shoot
  • Wound
  • Kill
  • Trap
  • Capture
  • Collect

It is also illegal to import, export, or sell an endangered species from the United States.

If you are convicted of violating the ESA, the criminal penalties include:

  • Up to a $50,000 fine
  • Up to one year in jail
  • Up to $25,000 in civil fines per violation

Can You Kill an Endangered Animal in Self-Defense?

In some cases, you may have an affirmative defense in cases of self-defense or defense of others. If you shoot an endangered or threatened species, there is an exception and defense to the charge if you had a good faith belief that you were acting to protect yourself, a family member, or any other person from bodily harm.

Serious Federal Charges Require a Serious Defense

Killing an endangered species or damaging its habitat is a federal crime. There is no such thing as a “minor” federal crime. Federal prosecutors take matters like this seriously, and you should too. If you are accused or charged with harming an endangered species, talk to a criminal defense attorney about your legal defense options. A lawyer can examine the evidence and help you build the strongest possible defense.

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