Obama admin narrows planned overhaul of petition process

By Corbin Hiar | 04/20/2016 01:03 PM EDT

The Obama administration yesterday afternoon scaled back a sweeping proposal to change the way members of the public can formally ask the Fish and Wildlife Service or National Marine Fisheries Service to review the status of animals or plants under the Endangered Species Act.

When they were proposed last year, the changes — which the services claimed would make the petition process more efficient, collaborative and transparent — were cheered by Republicans, industry groups and states but criticized by some conservationists (Greenwire, May 19, 2015).

After considering feedback from the public and stakeholder groups, however, the services have decided to make the draft rule more favorable to conservation organizations, which file the vast majority of the petitions.


"These revisions reduce some of the burdens the initial proposal placed on petitioners, yet retain the proposed improvements to the quality of incoming petitions and ensure better working partnerships with states, which are critical in conserving America’s imperiled species," FWS Director Dan Ashe said in a statement.

Specifically, the new revisions simplify the original proposal that petitioners coordinate with states. Petitioners would now be required to send a notification letter to the state wildlife agency in each state where the species resides at least 30 days before submitting the petition to FWS or NMFS.

But the services removed the initial requirement for petitioners to certify that they have provided all relevant information on a species, which many conservationists had characterized as an unreasonably high bar.

The revisions also clarified the proposed limit of one species per petition. It is now broadened to one "taxonomic species." That means, for example, that a petition from a ranching organization could make the case for removing from the endangered species list all gray wolf population groups as well as the Mexican wolf, which is a subspecies of the gray wolf.

The revised proposal will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow and then be open for comment until May 20.

Republicans, industry associations and states have not yet reacted to the changes.

Some conservation groups are happy that the services took their concerns into consideration but continue to oppose the revised draft rule.

"Today’s changes reduce the damage, but this whole proposal should still be withdrawn," Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release last night. "It purposefully places cumbersome burdens on the public to discourage their participation in protecting plants and animals."

CBD, which frequently petitions the services, argued that, with three public comment periods already built into the process for adding plants or animals to the endangered or threatened species lists, states and other stakeholders already have plenty of opportunities to weigh in on the status of species.

Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group with close ties to the administration, was also dissatisfied with the new proposal. Defenders claimed that the limit of one taxonomic species per petition is still needlessly restrictive.

"The revised proposed rule does nothing to make the ESA more effective and instead puts additional hurdles in the species listing process," spokeswoman Melanie Gade said in an email.

"The revised proposal prohibits multispecies petitions," she added. "The advantage of multispecies petitions is to seek listing of multiple different taxonomic species, not different members of the same species. This change adds unnecessary red tape to the listing process."

The revision was announced after Ashe was grilled for two and a half hours yesterday by House Natural Resources Committee Republicans about changes to habitat protection rules that even the usually critical CBD said were essentially codifications of the "status quo" (E&E Daily, April 20).

That contentious hearing likely would have been longer and more heated if the proposal had been released before then.

Ashe, however, is still likely to get an earful on the revision to the petition process at a hearing tomorrow morning of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Interior. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), the chairwoman of that panel, was a vocal supporter of the initial proposal.

"It is a refreshing day when the administration admits that the law needs more transparency, more state and local involvement, and less unproductive litigation," she said last May. "We need to make sure that while the administration took a positive verbal step yesterday, that they follow through and fix the problems as they exist on the ground, not just here in Washington among bureaucrats."