Deal Clears Path to Endangered List for Hundreds of U.S. Species

WASHINGTON, DC, May 10, 2011 (ENS) – The Department of the Interior today reached a legal settlement with a conservation group that would clear a lengthy backlog of petitions to place animals and plants on the federal endangered species list.

The agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the conservation group WildEarth Guardians resolves years of litigation and, if approved by a federal judge, would shift the way species are added to the list.

The Service agreed to decide within six years whether or not 251 species would receive federal protection.

“We hope it ends years of waiting for species on the candidate list – animals and plants that both the Service and WildEarth Guardians agree need the protection of the Endangered Species Act,” said WildEarth Guardians in a statement.

The fisher, Martes pennanti, is a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection, at risk from loss of habitat due to timber harvesting and trapping. (Photo by Nick Nichols/Green Diamond Resource Company courtesy USFWS)

The settlement goes before Judge Emmet Sullivan today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. If the judge approves, the settlement would require the Service to make a final determination on Endangered Species Act status for 251 candidate species by September 2016.

Gary Frazer, assistant director for endangered species with the Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters today it is “likely that most will be proposed for the endangered species list over the next six years.”

Under the agreement the Service also would make 90-day findings on more than 600 citizen petitions for imperiled plants and animals over the next two years.

WildEarth Guardians has petitioned more than 700 species for listing since 2007. The group has filed over 30 lawsuits on behalf of those species.

“This historic settlement is designed to eliminate the necessity for even more litigation in the future,” the group said today.

The settlement centers on a work plan that Fish and Wildlife Service officials say will allow the agency to focus its resources on the species most in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“For the first time in years, this work plan will give the wildlife professionals of the Fish and Wildlife Service the opportunity to put the needs of species first and extend that safety net to those truly in need of protection, rather than having our workload driven by the courts,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes. “It will also give states, stakeholders, and the public much-needed certainty.”

Hayes told reporters that the resources of the Service “have been consumed in great measure by the need to respond to petitions to list new species.”

Candidate species are classified as “warranted but precluded” from making the endangered species list. Essentially, the “warranted but precluded” finding is a deferral that means other, higher-priority actions will take precedence.

The greater sage-grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, is a large, ground-dwelling bird that cannot survive in areas where sagebrush does not exist. (Photo by Stephen Ting courtesy USFWS)

But the Service has not been able to complete the process for the candidate species “because new petitions keep rolling in,” said Hayes. The lack of resources means species have been waiting on the candidate list for years, even decades.

“This work plan will serve as a catalyst to move past the gridlock and acrimony of the past several years, enabling us to be more efficient and effective in both getting species on the list and working with our partners to recover those species and get them off the list as soon as possible,” said Acting Fish and Wildlife Service Director Rowan Gould.

Under the work plan, if the Service determines that listing is warranted for a species, the agency will propose that species for listing and allow the public to review and comment on the proposal before making a final determination.

“This is just the first step in our efforts to actively engage conservation partners and the public in the search for improved and innovative ways to conserve and recover imperiled species,” Gould said.

A list of these candidate species is online at: http://www.fws.gov/endangered/improving_ESA/listing_workplan.html.

They include mammals such as the fisher, the prairie dog and the Washington ground squirrel; birds such as the greater sage grouse, the red knot and the yellow-billed cuckoo; amphibians such as the Oregon spotted frog and the Arizona tree frog, fish such as the Arkansas darter and the least chub, freshwater mussels, snakes, snails, Hawaiian picture-wing flies, butterflies, cave beetles, plants such as orchids, wormwood, and even a species of sunflower.

The Service has developed a variety of tools and programs to help landowners fashion a conservation strategy for listed and candidate species that is consistent with their land management objectives and needs.

These tools include Habitat Conservation Plans and Candidate Conservation Agreements that provide regulatory assurance, technical assistance, and a grants program that funds conservation projects by private landowners, states, and territories.

Hayes said the Service’s current budget will cover the comitments made under the new work plan.

George Fenwick, president of the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy, said, “We expect the vast majority of species currently on the candidate list to be granted ESA listing by this process, since the science has already demonstrated that they merit protection. Of course, we would also expect that future listing petitions will be properly considered by this plan.”

Currently, 1,374 U.S. species are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Click here to find them on an interactive map.

The annual rate of listing species as threatened or endangered increased from the Ford administration (47 listings, 15 per year) through Carter (126 listings, 32 per year), Reagan (255 listings, 32 per year), George H. W. Bush (231 listings, 58 per year), and Clinton (521 listings, 65 per year) before declining to its lowest rate under George W. Bush (60 listings, eight per year. Under Barack Obama, 25 listings have been proposed.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.