Obama admin proposes major changes in listing process

By Corbin Hiar | 05/18/2015 01:15 PM EDT

The agencies responsible for protecting imperiled species today proposed changes to the way in which outside groups ask the federal government to review the status of plants and animals under the Endangered Species Act.

One proposed change would give states a bigger role in the petition process and increase coordination with federal wildlife officials, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service. Petitioners, which are most often environmental groups or animal welfare advocates, would have to solicit information from relevant state wildlife agencies prior to asking the services to review the status of a given species.

The proposal was quickly panned by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), one of the most frequent petitioners of FWS and NMFS, as an unnecessary step and a burden on concerned citizen groups.


But the changes — along with a raft of planned regulatory updates to the four-decade-old law that were also previewed today — are likely to be welcomed by Republicans who have introduced legislation that they say would make the law more transparent and efficient.

"These actions will make an effective and robust law even more successful, and will also reinforce the importance of states, landowners and sound science in that effort," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees FWS, said in a statement.

Larry Voyles, the president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, added in the statement that "we appreciate the Service’s due recognition of, and requirement to, incorporate the data and information of state fish and wildlife agencies for the formulation of listing petitions."

But Noah Greenwald, CBD’s endangered species director, said in an interview that "these proposed regulations will make it harder for wildlife on the brink of extinction to get the protection they need."

Greenwald was particularly concerned by a provision that would bar multi-species petitions, which he said are more efficient, and new pre-petition notification requirements. He also argued that the law already allows states to submit data early in the listing review process.

The proposal will be posted in the Federal Register later this week. Public comments on the plan will be accepted for 60 days after its publication.

The Obama administration statement also promised forthcoming proposals to strengthen data disclosure policies and peer-review standards, promote and expand the use of conservation banking and other advance mitigation tools, streamline interagency consultation procedures and habitat conservation plan permitting, and state-federal collaboration policies.

Those steps "would result in a more nimble, transparent and ultimately more effective Endangered Species Act," FWS Director Dan Ashe said in the joint statement. "By improving and streamlining our processes, we are ensuring the limited resources of state and federal agencies are best spent actually protecting and restoring imperiled species."

The moves are seemingly an attempt to head off a series of Republican reform bills that Ashe said earlier this month would "add a lot of process and new requirements that would be new causes of legal action that would make it more difficult to conserve species" (E&E Daily, May 7).

The administration statement notes, "The Services are not seeking any legislative changes to the Act, because the agencies believe that implementation can be significantly improved through rulemaking and policy formulation."

But that declaration stands in contrast to an unprompted comment Ashe made at the end of his appearance at this month’s Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

"I do believe that the Endangered Species Act should be reauthorized," he said after responding to a series of questions from committee members about his $1.6 billion budget request and local issues.

Ashe noted that the legislation that was the basis for the last significant reform of the law in 1988 was a thoroughly bipartisan affair. "I think it’s possible to bring people of good will together, and we could do the same thing," he said.