For more than two centuries now, naturalists have been grappling with the problem of extinction. However, how they framed and responded to that problem have both changed fundamentally during that time. During the decades following the publication of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, a series of seismic scientific shifts not only established that the natural world had experienced profound transformations in the past but also catapulted the study of extinction to front and center within natural history. Until the 1920s, American wildlife conservation focused almost exclusively on the plight of vulnerable individual species, particularly those birds, mammals, and fish considered economically valuable. With limited success, ecologists pushed to broaden this concern to threatened associations of organisms, an approach more in keeping with their interest in the relationship between living things and their environment. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 offered a powerful mandate for the preservation of endangered species, while placing the federal government at the center of a systematic, comprehensive program to rescue them.
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