The Obama administration is moving to accelerate Endangered Species Act listing decisions for hundreds of plants and animals, some of which have languished on a waiting list for more than 25 years.
At issue are 250 or so "candidate species," a designation that offers no legal protections for affected species and is intended to be temporary. But nearly 100 species have been on the ESA waiting list for more than 10 years, and 73 have been waiting more than 25 years, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group.
The group has sued the Interior Department in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over its use of the candidate species list, saying the government's failure to promptly decide on listings violates the species law.
The law says Interior must issue a "finding" -- a decision on whether a species deserves a listing -- 12 months from its receipt of a listing petition. But petitions are going unanswered for an average of 11 years, the center says, and often are not addressed until forced by a judicial order.
The Obama administration says it is going to change how candidate species are handled. The Fish and Wildlife Service, the Interior agency responsible for the management of endangered species, is working on an accelerated listing process, said Doug Krofta, the service's listing chief. With new techniques and more funding, Krofta said, the service can trim the candidate list by 25 percent by the end of 2010.
"I think we're getting closer to ... getting that 12-month finding within 12 months," Krofta said. "If you were to give me a petition now ... I'll likely be able to respond within a year. Where we were a couple years ago, it would be four to five to six years."
The service is planning to attack the backlog on two fronts.
First, it plans to focus on sweeping, ecosystem-based listings that would address many species at a time. And second, it is putting more money into the endangered species program. The budget has more than doubled since early in the Bush administration, going from $9 million in 2002 to $19 million in fiscal 2009.
But environmentalists say the funding boost is far from what is needed to clear the candidate species backlog: $153 million over five years.
Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity maintains that funding for the program should be doubled again to allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to keep pace with new listing petitions while reducing its backlog.
"I think we've only scratched the surface of the problem," Greenwald said, "and it is going to require more resources as time goes on to save species from extinction."
In part, the service's move toward ecosystem-based listings is an attempt to save money on listings while trying to bolster conservation of several imperiled species at a time.
The idea is to cluster multiple species from an ecosystem into a single ESA listing, instead of going species by species, the traditional approach.
Overall, federal biologists say, the strategy allows for the management of an entire ecosystem, rather than going species by species. It also condenses the listing process for many plants and animals into one proposal.
Sam Hamilton, the Fish and Wildlife Service's new director, said following his Senate confirmation hearing in July that he would "get deeply immersed in" addressing the backlog. Ecosystems-based listings, he added, were among the tools he would use for that job.
The push for an ecosystem-based approach to ESA began in the waning days of the Bush administration, which proposed listing 48 plants and animals on a Hawaiian island. Instead of writing separate proposals for each species, the service grouped them, proposing the protection of more than 27,000 acres of habitat in a single recovery plan.
The service is continuing that approach under President Obama. Its biologists are working on two similar listings for other islands in Hawaii, which has 67 species on the candidate list. The two proposals, which would protect 71 species, have not been formally proposed but are being reviewed by Interior officials in Washington, D.C., and biologists in Hawaii.
"Part of the reason we wanted to do this was to address the backlog of candidate species, but we look at it more as this approach is benefiting the ecosystem as a whole," said Ken Foote, a service spokesman in Hawaii. "Instead of just one endangered species, if we protect the habitat and protect multiple endangered species, it's a win-win situation for everything."
Environmentalists also like the approach, saying the ecosystem approach could be critical to saving multiple species whose survival is threatened by climate change.
"In order to address the gap that exists between the list of species currently and those not protected but considered by scientists to be imperiled, it will require the service to make decisions for dozens of species," said Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. "If we have any hope of bridging that gap, they need to take action on dozens of species at once."
Regardless of what approach the service takes to species protection, nothing gets done without adequate funding.
While Krofta, the Fish and Wildlife Service's listing chief, said his agency has sped through its work because of the increase in funding to $19 million in fiscal 2009, environmentalists say that is not enough.
The average cost of a complete listing decision is $85,000 and of a single designation of critical habitat is $515,000, the service says.
Environmentalists say the agency needs about $30 million a year to eliminate the listing backlog.
The Center for Biological Diversity's Greenwald believes a doubling of the current "paltry" budget is politically possible, given the Democratic Party's hold on the White House and Capitol Hill.
ESA funding "went up under a Republican administration," Greenwald said. "I'd like to think that with a Democratic administration and Democratic Congress it could go up substantially more."
The Obama administration proposed just under 4 percent more funding for the entire endangered species program for fiscal 2010, while other environmental programs saw larger proposed increases. In total, the administration's 2010 request for Interior was more than 17 percent higher than the department's 2009 budget, and the request for U.S. EPA was nearly 40 percent more than last year.
To be sure, not all candidate species have been ignored during their long stays on the ESA waiting list.
Some species -- the sage grouse, for example -- have been the focus of "cooperative conservation" agreements between the government and private landowners.
Under such agreements, landowners manage properties to benefit the species in exchange for special consideration from the government if the species is listed under ESA. There are 19 such agreements covering 13 candidate species. And another 120 species, some of them on the candidate list, are involved in other conservation agreements, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
But environmentalists say voluntary agreements do not ensure species protections. An ESA listing, on the other hand, includes regulatory safeguards, funding and habitat protections.
"In some cases, good things do happen from these agreements for these candidate species, but it's spotty," Greenwald said. "The majority of candidate species receive virtually no attention whatsoever, and there is often continued habitat loss and the situation gets worse."
Though the Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to address such concerns by attacking the candidate species backlog, its efforts fall short of what is needed, Greenwald said.
"Of the 251 candidates included in the most recent review by FWS, 145 are listed as being the highest priority, reflecting high-magnitude, imminent threats," Greenwald said. "It is very likely that with further delay, one or more of these species will go extinct, yet [the Fish and Wildlife Service] exhibits little urgency."
The additional funding and new techniques won't solve the problem, he said, unless the service approaches ESA issues with more enthusiasm than it showed during the Bush administration. Over the last eight years, he said, the agency put species on the candidates list to delay protections for any species.
"They had a clear ideological opposition to protecting endangered species," Greenwald said. "When you look at what they actually have accomplished, it's all been because of litigation."
But Krofta, the service's listing chief, argues that litigation is part of the agency's problem.
A string of court losses in the 1990s left the service under judicial order to propose critical habitat for hundreds of species, Krofta said, tying up agency resources and leaving little money to address new species petitions and tackle the candidate backlog.
"The litigation has been very disruptive to the program," Krofta said. "When all we're able to do is respond to the litigation, it takes away our ability to prioritize."