Unexpected Pact Benefits 29 Rare Species

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, August 29, 2001 (ENS) - In a painstakingly negotiated truce, federal officials and a coalition of environmental groups have reached an agreement that will provide new protections for dozens of rare species and their habitat. The settlement, announced today, will relieve some of the legal pressure on wildlife officials, while expediting protections for species in urgent need of help.

rabbit

The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, North America's smallest and rarest rabbit, is one of the species that will benefit from the agreement (All photos courtesy Center for Biological Diversity, except where specified)
The Center for Biological Diversity, Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, and the California Native Plant Society have reached an agreement in principle with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) which will accelerate protective efforts for 29 species.

"This is a model cooperative effort," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "By working together, environmentalists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have found a way to expedite protection for endangered plants and animals across the United States from the Pacific Islands to Idaho to Florida. It is a winning situation for everyone, especially endangered wildlife."

Under the agreement, three months in the making, the USFWS will immediately review three species for emergency listing, issue 14 final listing decisions and eight proposed listing rules, and make decisions on four Endangered Species Act (ESA) petitions.

The USFWS will also map out critical habitat areas for the Gila chub in New Mexico and Arizona, and for four freshwater snails in New Mexico.

frog

The USFWS will make a final decision on whether to list the Chiricahua leopard frog, found in scattered southwestern streams and wetlands, under the Endangered Species Act
The 29 species helped by the agreement represent a small portion of the 235 species listed as candidates for federal protection. Of these, 24 species are on the "warranted but precluded" list, meaning the USFWS believes they need protection, but the agency lacks the resources to list them.

Another 35 are proposed for listing, 66 have been petitioned for listing, and several hundred still lack critical habitat designations.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that it will require at least $120 million to process the current backlog of species and habitats in need of protection. Though the Department of Interior requested $1.3 million more for the listing budget in 2002 than 2001, environmental groups, scientists and 13 senators have called upon Congress to increase funding for the Endangered Species Listing program to $120 million over the next five years.

"This agreement won't end all the conflicts, and it certainly won't save all of America's imperiled species, but it's a good start," said Suckling. "With so many plants and animals on the brink of extinction, it is imperative that environmental groups and the Fish and Wildlife Service work together to pull them back."

fox

Island foxes, at risk from predatory golden eagles, habitat fragmentation and disease, will be considered for ESA listing
The agreement marks a dramatic change in the relations between the USFWS and groups like the Center for Biological Diversity. The Center has filed at least 75 lawsuits against the agency, seeking to force the listing of rare species and the specification of areas critical to the recovery of species that have already been listed.

Of those lawsuits which have been completed, the Center has won 59 and lost just one.

Those lawsuits, the USFWS argues, consume critical funding and other resources that the agency could otherwise use to study species that may warrant protection.

"I am pleased that we have been able to cooperate and find common ground that will allow us to protect these species under the Endangered Species Act," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said today. "I hope this can be a model for future agreements."

While the formal agreement is still pending, the USFWS will immediately reallocate funds to begin work on the species covered by it.

"All parties to this agreement ultimately want the same thing - to conserve and recover threatened and endangered species," said Marshall Jones, acting director of the USFWS.

gopher frog

One of just 100 remaining Mississippi gopher frogs, all of which live in a single Mississippi pond (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Among the 29 species are the Mississippi gopher frog, which formerly occurred across large areas of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. The frog is now isolated in a single pond in Harrison County, Mississippi, which is threatened by a proposed housing development and highway projects.

The USFWS has now promised to issue final decisions on ESA listing for the Mississippi gopher frog and 13 other species within a matter of weeks.

The agency will also immediately review three species that have been nominated for emergency listing under the Endangered Species Act, including the Tumbling Creek cavesnail in Missouri, the Carson wandering skipper butterfly in California and Nevada, and the pygmy rabbit in Washington state.

The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, North America's smallest rabbit, is rapidly losing ground to predators, disease, development and agriculture. Just 50 pygmy rabbits are now believed to exist, and biologists have begun capturing the animals for a captive breeding effort.

shrew

Only one population of the Buena Vista Lake ornate shrew is now known to exist
Equally endangered are the island fox now being rounded up on California's Channel Islands, the Buena Vista Lake ornate shrew which remains in a single, tiny wetland in the Central Valley, and the Tumbling Creek cavesnail which occurs in just a single cave in Missouri.

Altogether, the USFWS agreed to issue final listing decisions for 14 species and propose eight more species for listing. The agency will take action on four citizen petitions to list species under the ESA, and will designate critical habitat for the Gila chub, a fish found only in New Mexico and Arizona, and for four freshwater snails in New Mexico.

To free up resources to make these decisions within a short time frame, the environmental groups agreed to a six month delay in the mapping out of critical habitat areas for four Hawaiian invertebrates, and a nine month delay in critical habitat for three California plants and a freshwater clam from the Appalachians.

milkvetch

Just three tiny populations of Holmgren's milk vetch now exist in two states. The USFWS will consider ESA listing for the plant
These deadlines were the result of two prior settlements and a court order.

"The Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project recognizes the national and global dimensions of the current human caused extinction spasm. As such, we are eager to help critically endangered species wherever they are found," said Marty Bergoffen, staff attorney for the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project. "This agreement will provide immediate protection to some of the species facing imminent threats."