The Obama administration intends to remove more recovered species from the federal lists of endangered and threatened wildlife and plants than all previous administrations combined, according to a recently released White House regulatory plan.
The target — set tentatively for the end of September — has divided advocates and critics of the Endangered Species Act, the landmark law that established processes for adding imperiled species to the lists and removing them when they are no longer at threat of extinction.
Under President Obama, the Fish and Wildlife Service has delisted 12 species — already more species declared recovered than in any single administration since ESA was enacted in December 1973.
The regulatory agenda released by the White House last week set out dates by which the administration hopes to finalize rules that would remove ESA protections from seven additional species.
If it can meet those deadlines, the Obama administration will have successfully delisted more wildlife and plants in less than seven years than the 18 species other administrations together managed to recover in more than 30 years.
The first species scheduled for delisting is the Modoc sucker, a tiny fish found in the streams of northeastern California and southern Oregon. The regulatory plan calls for issuing a final rule on the sucker this month.
FWS proposed removing the fish from the endangered species list in February 2014. But the process was delayed because the agency neglected to publish a classified ad about the move in a local newspaper, which is an antiquated legal requirement of the ESA (Greenwire, March 2).
In June, FWS is slated to remove federal protections from a bluish-green flowering shrub commonly known as the Johnston’s frankenia. Found in southern Texas and parts of Mexico, the endangered species was first proposed for delisting a dozen years ago (Land Letter, May 29, 2003).
Final rules to delist three species are then expected in July.
FWS proposed in 1993 to downlist the endangered Hawaiian hawk to threatened under the ESA — a lower level of protection that indicated the species was no longer on the brink of extinction but could be in the near future. But that rulemaking wasn’t completed.
Instead, the agency proposed full delisting for the 18-inch-long raptor in August 2008, during the twilight of the George W. Bush administration. Since then, the Obama administration has held three separate comment periods on the proposal to remove federal protections for the bird, which was once associated with Hawaiian royalty.
The agency also plans to remove the Eureka Dunes evening primrose and Eureka Valley dune grass from the endangered species list. The desert plants, found only in eastern California, were proposed for delisting last year after nearly a decade of litigation over their statuses (E&ENews PM, Feb. 26, 2014).
The White House scheduled rules lifting protections for those two species in September.
The endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, which like the Hawaiian hawk was initially protected in 1967 under a precursor to the ESA, was proposed for delisting last year. The slate-gray, white-bellied squirrel is found only in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia (Greenwire, Sept. 19, 2014).
The threatened Inyo California towhee, a gray-brown, desert-dwelling songbird, is also set to lose federal protections.
FWS Director Dan Ashe claimed that the ongoing surge in delistings is proof that ESA works when imperiled species are given time to recover.
"Our successes in recovering and delisting species demonstrates both the Endangered Species Act’s effectiveness and the diverse collaborations it inspires," he said in a statement to Greenwire. "Protecting and restoring wildlife at the brink of extinction is a rigorous, science-driven process that can take years of effort."
The service recently promised a raft of regulatory reforms that seem to be aimed at fending off congressional attempts to rework and roll back the ESA, which many Republicans claim has been ineffective at recovering species (Greenwire, May 18).
Environmentalists were also generally supportive of the broader recovery efforts that FWS plans to complete. These include issuing proposed rules to remove protections from a half-dozen species and downlist a similar number of animals and plants. Some of those species could then be completely delisted in 2016, before President Obama leaves office.
But Ya-Wei Li, the director of endangered species conservation at Defenders of Wildlife, was disappointed that the White House wasn’t planning to increase protections for any of the 10 threatened species that FWS recently found should be classified as endangered. Two of those — the Little Colorado spinedace and Chihuahua chub — even have special rules under ESA’s Section 4(d) that make it easier for people to incidentally harass or kill them.
"There’s still a lot of species that will continue to slip through the cracks unless we give the service the financial, the social and the political support it needs to do this very difficult job," he said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, the other agency responsible for implementing the ESA, has never completely delisted a species and has no immediate plans to do so. NMFS did however recently propose to remove federal protections from most humpback whales (Greenwire, April 20).
Only Clinton listed more species
ESA critics note that the Obama White House is still planning to add dozens more species to the lists of protected wildlife and plants.
"Too many new species are being listed under the ESA for the wrong reasons," said Neal Kirby, a spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America. "When it comes to true species conservation, we must utilize the best available science — not political activism — in an effort to balance species conservation and recovery with economic growth and development."
FWS is slated to propose or finalize rules listing about 60 species, although more than half of those are found only in foreign countries or U.S. territories where the ESA’s reach or impacts are less keenly felt by domestic industries. The agency has already extended ESA protections to more species under Obama than any other president aside from President Clinton, whose administration listed more than 520 species.
But Vermont Law School professor Patrick Parenteau, an expert on the ESA, argued that the reason Obama has had to do so many species listings is because his predecessor’s administration did so few.
Under President George W. Bush, FWS listed around 60 species in eight years. By comparison, the agency extended ESA protections to nearly 50 species during President Ford’s 2½ years in office.
"The large number of listings simply reflects the tremendous backlog that has developed" since the Clinton administration, Parenteau said.
The professor also suggested that the increased rate of species losing federal protections isn’t necessarily a crowning achievement for Obama’s FWS or supporters of the ESA.
"The law is much stricter on the science-based mandate to list as opposed to the more discretionary and political decision to delist," Parenteau said. "Delisting has become the principal measure of success for the ESA, which is a major political victory for the opponents."