Would Aliens Have Legal Rights Under the ESA?

By: Caitlin Ens

“If we find lots of planets like ours…we’ll know it’s likely that we aren’t alone, and that someday we might be able to join other intelligent life in the universe.”[1] Because we have yet to find or communicate with extraterrestrial life, belief in aliens has become a conspiracy theory rather than a science. However, people across the country have reported spotting UFO space ships and objects. According to the National UFO Reporting Center, 4,655 sightings were recorded in 2017 alone.[2] How would Americans react if we made contact with another intelligent species? Would we greet them with open arms, or start another world war? If we were to seek peaceful relations, aliens could possibly receive legal protection under the framework of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The ESA protects species that are “of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.”[3] The Act also declares that all Federal departments and agencies must use their authoritative powers to conserve endangered and threatened species and their habitats.[4] For aliens to be protected under this federal law, they would have to be classified as a “species,” which is defined as any species of wildlife “which breeds when mature.”[5] The term “wildlife” is defined as “any member of the animal kingdom.”[6]

Under its current statutory language, protecting alien life under the ESA would be a stretch, and a new federal law would likely be formulated. If we were to make contact, scientists would be hard-pressed to classify aliens as a form of “wildlife” because of the lack of scientific knowledge about the topic in general. However, since humans are classified as members of the animal kingdom, it can be argued that aliens would be as well. If an alien species were to offer us new technologies and tools, they could also be of particular scientific and educational value and worthy of protection.

It’s interesting to think how the legal world would change if we discovered an alien species and interacted with them on our planet. In order to maintain the peace and develop an action plan, the legislature would have to find a way to either protect them or enforce laws against them. Although this issue is not something we have to worry about right now, we must always be prepared for whatever comes our way- even if it’s an alien encounter.


[1] NASA, Exoplanet Exploration, Looking for life in all the right places, https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/the-search-for-life/life-signs.

[2] Richard Van Steenberg, UFO Sightings for 2017, FUTURISM, Dec. 2017, https://futurism.media/ufo-sightings-for-2017.

[3] 16 U.S.C. § 1531(a)(3) (2012).

[4] Id. § 1531(c)(1).

[5] Id. § 1532(16).

[6] Id. § 1532(8).

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