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Friday, September 30, 2011 - Page updated at 08:00 p.m.

More at-risk plants, animals to get protection

By MATTHEW BROWN
The Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. — The Obama administration is taking steps to extend new federal protections to a list of imperiled animals and plants that reads like a manifest for Noah's Ark, from the golden-winged warbler and slow-moving gopher tortoise, to the slimy American eel and tiny Texas kangaroo rat.

Compelled by two recent legal settlements, the effort in part targets species that have been mired in bureaucratic limbo as they inch toward potential extinction.

With a Friday deadline to act on more than 700 pending cases, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued decisions advancing more than 500 species toward potential new protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Observers said the agency's actions mark a breakthrough for a program long criticized by conservatives and liberals alike as cumbersome and slow.

But most decisions made under the new settlements are preliminary, and key Republicans vowed Thursday to put the brakes on a law they blame for jeopardizing economic growth.

Patrick Parenteau, an environmental-law professor at the Vermont Law School, said: "Here at a single glance, you see the sweep of the Endangered Species Act. They are moving through this large backlog at a fairly crisp clip now. This is the largest number of listing actions we've seen in a very long time, in decades."

More listings due today

Decisions on about 60 more species covered under the settlements are expected Friday, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The action could help revive President Obama's standing among wildlife advocates upset over the administration's support for taking gray wolves off the endangered list in the Northern Rockies and Upper Great Lakes, among other issues.

It also could set the stage for a new round of disputes pitting conservation against development. In the Southeast, for example, water supplies already stretched thin could be further limited by constraints resulting from new fish, salamanders, turtles and other aquatic creatures eligible for protections.

In response to the administration's decisions under the settlements, Republicans including U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, of Washington, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, repeated the call to overhaul the 37-year-old endangered-species law.

He is planning hearings this fall into what he characterizes as the law's failure.

"The (Endangered Species Act) is unfortunately now used as a tool in costly lawsuits where politics trump science, and jobs and economic prosperity are put in jeopardy," Hastings said Thursday.

Citing restrictions against development and other activities, GOP lawmakers this year unsuccessfully sought to strip the federal budget of money to list new species as threatened or endangered. The administration is seeking $25 million for the listing program in 2012, an 11 percent increase.

For species already listed as threatened or endangered, a 2006 study from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found projected recovery costs ranged widely: from $125 million for the whooping crane, to $58,000 for the decurrent false aster, a flower.

Determining the broader cost to the economy is more difficult. Lost jobs from restrictions placed on logging or agriculture might be offset by benefits to outdoor recreational industries such as boating or fishing, said Jason Shogren, a natural-resources professor at the University of Wyoming.

Some listings rejected

Under the current settlements, only 13 new animals and plants have reached the final step and been added to the almost 1,400 species on the government's threatened and endangered list. Also, not every species made the cut to take the next step.

Roughly 40 rejections have been meted out, including for plains bison, the giant Palouse earthworm of Idaho and Utah's Gila monster. Those rejections are subject to court challenges.

Among species that advanced for further consideration are 35 snails from Nevada's Great Basin, 82 crawfish from the Southeast, 99 Hawaiian plants and a cast of butterflies, birds, fish, beetles, frogs, lizards, mussels and more from all parts of the country.

Some have languished for decades on a "candidate list" of species the government says warrant protection but that it lacks the resources to help.

That deadline was established in a pair of settlements approved by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan on Sept. 9. Those deals resolved multiple lawsuits brought against the Fish and Wildlife Service by Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity and New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians.

WildEarth Guardians' Mark Salvo said the agency's actions lend credence to claims that the affected species were in serious trouble.

"The science supports protecting these species," he said.

Agency spokeswoman Vanessa Kauffman said much of the work to comply with the settlements was well under way before the deals were finalized.

The settlements also contained provisions to limit the number of petitions that can be filed by the two environmental groups if they want more animals and plants considered for protections.

Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity said the Fish and Wildlife Service was making "substantial progress."

Under the settlements, the Fish and Wildlife Service put off decisions on some of the more contentious species, including greater sage grouse, the Pacific walrus and Sonoran desert tortoise.

Those are due over the next several years and could have wide-ranging implications for oil and gas drilling, grazing and, in the case of the walrus, potentially for climate-change policies.

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