ENDANGERED SPECIES

Agreement could move hundreds of species closer to ESA listing

Scores of imperiled species, ranging from the walrus to the wolverine, will move to the front of the line in the Fish and Wildlife Service's backlog of pending Endangered Species Act listing decisions under a new agreement finalized this week by the agency and one of its most litigious critics.

The settlement between FWS and the Center for Biological Diversity, awaiting approval from U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, D.C., clears the way for the agency to issue ESA determinations over the next six years on 261 animals and plants that have been deemed to warrant federal protection but have yet to be added to the endangered species list.

If approved by the court, the agreement "will allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to focus its resources on the species most in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act," said Vanessa Kauffman, a spokeswoman for FWS.

The deal expands a landmark agreement reached in May between FWS and another environmental group, WildEarth Guardians, which CBD had challenged on the basis that it omitted some key species (Land Letter, May 12).

FWS will now take action on all of the 253 ESA "candidate species" that were subject to the previous agreement, plus another eight species of interest specifically to CBD: the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, Mount Charleston blue butterfly, spring pygmy sunfish, ashy storm-petrel, eastern small-footed bat, North American wolverine, northern long-eared bat and Pacific walrus. Three of those -- the butterfly, wolverine and walrus -- are candidate species; the others have not been put on FWS's waiting list.

FWS has already begun reviews for most of those species, Kauffman said, and some, such as the Southwest's cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and southern Nevada's Mount Charleston blue butterfly, will receive listing decisions within the next year or two. The rest will be spread out over the next six years, with the last decision to be issued no later than fiscal 2018, according to a schedule included in the agreement.

Candidate species are those that FWS has determined are eligible for protection as threatened or endangered under ESA but that cannot be listed because of other more pressing needs. Environmental groups have long argued that species languish on the candidate list too long, and WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity have filed countless lawsuits over the years to try to spur FWS to act more quickly.

FWS, in turn, has consistently countered that the delays are due in large part to the diversion of resources required to deal with such lawsuits. The new agreement will free up the agency's listing program staff to focus on decisionmaking instead of "costly and time-consuming litigation," Kauffman said.

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The deal assumes that funding levels will remain more or less constant over the next six years. If they fall, FWS can request an extension of the listing decision deadlines.

FWS will also address a backlog of more than 600 petitions urging the agency to take a range of actions, from assessing whether there is enough scientific information to justify considering a species for federal protection to issuing a final listing decision.

Since 2007, environmental groups have petitioned to list about 1,000 species, according to FWS (E&ENews PM, July 12).

Species named in the petitions include the black-footed albatross, California golden trout, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, Mexican gray wolf, 42 species of Great Basin springsnails, and the San Bernardino flying squirrel. All of those findings will be issued either this fiscal year or next, according to the agreement.

A menagerie in limbo

The hundreds of species included in the two agreements span the plant and animal kingdoms and face a wide range of threats. Some, such as the wolverine and the Pacific walrus, which is vulnerable to habitat loss from the accelerating decline of Arctic sea ice, have seen their habitats altered by climate change (Land Letter, Feb. 17).

Others, such as the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, both the greater and Mono Basin sage grouse, and the Pacific fisher, a cat-like relative of minks and otters, have suffered from various forms of development, including road building, oil and gas development and logging, according to the groups seeking their protection.

Disease is also driving the decline of numerous species. The northern long-eared bat, for instance, which FWS is to decide whether to list by fiscal 2013, is one of several bat species devastated by white-nose syndrome, which has killed more than one million cave-hibernating bats in the eastern United States and Canada since its discovery in 2006.

While the species included in the agreement span the country, the West Coast, Hawaii, Southwest and Southeast "are America's extinction hot spots," said Kieran Suckling, executive director for the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tuscon, Ariz. "Most of the species lost in the past century lived there, and most of those threatened with extinction in the next decade live there, as well."

The ESA currently protects more than 1,300 species in the United States and about 570 species abroad.

Click here for a list of ESA candidate species.

Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.

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