The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Tuesday a plan to handle a backlog of 251 threatened plants and animals that might merit Endangered Species Act protections, including some species that have languished in conservation limbo for more than three decades.
The schedule is part of a proposed settlement with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians to dismiss a dozen cases in which the group claimed the federal government failed to move fast enough to protect disappearing species. The agency agreed to make a decision on all those cases within six years, and to set up a timetable to weigh other species that have been petitioned for the list by WildEarth Guardians and other conservation groups. The agreement is awaiting approval by a federal judge.
The work plan is “an important step forward … in our efforts to protect and recover endangered species,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior Dennis Hayes. He said the delays were largely caused by environmental groups petitioning and litigating over new species before officials could act on existing candidates.
“Priorities are being set by plaintiffs in court instead of by wildlife professionals, by litigation instead of science,” he said.
The settlement would require Fish and Wildlife to make final listing determinations by September 2016 for the 251 candidate species. In return, WildEarth Guardians would agree to dismiss its lawsuits and refrain from suing over delays for six years. It would also limit its new petitions for endangered species to no more than 10 each year.
“We and the government agree that the day has come to address the future of the endangered species candidates,” said Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “This will be an important step toward protecting the rich biodiversity in the U.S. and stemming the extinction crisis.”
The group complains that of the 251 candidate species noted by the agency last November, 150 have been waiting for listing for more than 20 years, and 57 have been waiting for more than 30 years. In the meantime, these species, which include the greater sage grouse, whose habitat could be threatened by oil and gas drilling in the West, and plants and animals ranging from the Tucson shovel-nosed snake to White River beardstongue, a flower that grows in oil shale country, have often dwindled while their threats have grown.
Officials complain they have been inundated with petitions for listings, preventing them from working on the neediest of candidates. Because the agency is required to act first on petitions and court actions, endangered species candidates “have languished,” Hayes said.
For the dozen years before 2007, he said, the agency received petitions for an average of 20 species each year. Since then, more than 1,230 petitions have been filed, “nearly as many as the service had listed during the previous 30 years,” he said.
“The candidate list has been the black hole of the Endangered Species Act, where animals and plants that deserve the protection of the act were consigned to an endless queue,” said WildEarth Guardians attorney Jay Tutchton.