ENDANGERED SPECIES:

Interior unveils plan to address listing of more than 250 species

The Interior Department today announced a six-year plan to address the needs of more than 250 species it says warrant protections under the Endangered Species Act.

The "work plan" filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeks to resolve a legal challenge from WildEarth Guardians, one of the Fish and Wildlife Service's most frequent plaintiffs.

The work plan, if accepted by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, would allow the agency to make listing determinations for each of the species on its 2010 candidate list over the next six years, in addition to making petition findings for a number of separate species that have been the subject of recent petitions.

"In the more than 35 years since its passage, the Endangered Species Act has proved to be a critical safety net for America's imperiled fish, wildlife, and plants," Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes said in a statement. "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."

The plan will also provide much-needed certainty to states, stakeholders and the public, Hayes added.

"It will allow us to focus efforts on species most in need of protection, something we have not been able to do in years," said Gary Frazer, assistant director of FWS's endangered species program. It would also give the agency relief from deadline litigation and allow it to focus on species most in need of protection, he said.

In its proposed agreement with Interior, WildEarth said for the next six years it will refrain from litigation compelling 90-day and 12-month findings on new listing petitions the group submits and will limit the number of listing petitions it submits per year. In return, Interior has agreed to make certain 90-day and 12-month petition findings at issue in the litigation, take other specific ESA listing actions over the next two years and take final action to resolve the status of candidate species for ESA listing, WildEarth said.

"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 at WildEarth, in a statement. "This will be an important step toward protecting the rich biodiversity in the U.S. and stemming the extinction crisis."

Candidate species are at-risk plants and animals that qualify for ESA protections but that must wait for a listing because of other, higher-priority listing actions. FWS's 2010 candidate list numbered 251 species.

But in a conference call this afternoon, Hayes said the agency's priorities are being determined by litigants instead of by agency biologists.

Interior said FWS's highest priority is making implementation of ESA less complex, less controversial and more effective.

The agency has begun a review of its ESA implementation to identify ways to eliminate unnecessary procedural requirements, clarify regulations and engage states, tribes, conservationists and private landowners as partners in conservation. It is also encouraging innovative strategies for implementing the law and hopes to reduce the frequency and intensity of conflicts.

"I think this is a pretty significant commitment to clean up the backlog," said John Kostyack, vice president of wildlife conservation at the National Wildlife Federation. "It allows Interior to focus on protecting species and get out of the courtroom; that is pretty significant progress."

Kieran Suckling, executive director of Center for Biological Diversity, a key litigant in endangered species cases, said the proposed agreement will resolve a number of suits involving WildEarth and CBD.