Endangered species: Enviros score 251

Posted: Oct 17, 2017

Endangered species got a leg up this week when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and an environmental group entered into an unusual settlement designed to protect species while limiting litigation.

In the tentative agreement, the FWS agrees to issue final listing decisions, by September 2016, on 251 species that are currently candidates for federal protection. During that time, WildEarth Guardians will dismiss its pending lawsuits against the government, and will refrain from suing the agency for missing critical deadlines in the processing of new listing petitions.

WildEarth Guardians is one of two groups that has petitioned the FWS to gain Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for a record high 1,230 species over the past four years. The settlement would also limit the number of new petitions that the group could file during the next half-dozen years.

The agreement would essentially clear the backlog of so-called “candidate species” which, after scientific consideration, have already been green-lighted for protection but have lingered in a purgatory where they await final listing behind many “higher priority” species. Most of these beleaguered plants and animals have been awaiting final ESA listing for decades.

While the list covers 55 Hawaiian plants, and several kinds of grass, butterflies and beetles, it also includes some highly-contentious species.

In all, there are 101 species from the Western U.S. being given the golden ticket. These include the lesser prairie-chicken, greater sage-grouse, Sonoran Desert tortoise and wolverine. The lesser prairie-chicken has been at the center of political ire, and was the subject of a letter sent to Congress last month by several U.S. representatives from New Mexico and Texas who feel protection for the chicken would stymie business in their districts.

“This agreement has been a long time coming,” says Jay Tutchton, general counsel of WildEarth Guardians. “The candidate list has been the black hole of the Endangered Species Act. Today’s agreement will finally allow these species, that the government has repeatedly stated warrant protection, to have a decent chance at actually receiving that protection before they go extinct,” he says.

In a press release, Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes said of the agreement, “...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. It will also give states, stakeholders, and the public much-needed certainty.”

Joe Feller, a visiting clinical professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Law sees the settlement as a “practical, cooperative solution to the longstanding problem of how to protect imperiled wildlife in a time of tight budgets and impending spending cuts.” “This solution is far preferable to gridlock in the courts and also to possible legislative intervention that might cripple the Endangered Species Act,” he says.

No doubt the settlement is a hopeful step toward shifting how the endangered species listing program is run. It is subject to approval by a federal court.

Read FAQs on the working plan. 

Update: On May 17, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan pulled the plug on the settlement for the time being, sending FWS and environmentalists back to the bargaining table. While some conservationists have embraced the original settlement as an innovative solution to clearing the backlog of candidate species, the Center for Biological Diversity objects to the deal, arguing that it ignores important species and is, ultimately, unenforceable.

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