Unexpected Pact Benefits 29 Rare Species
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, August 29, 2001 (ENS) - In a painstakingly negotiated truce, federal officials and a coalition of environmental groups have reached an agreement that will provide new protections for dozens of rare species and their habitat. The settlement, announced today, will relieve some of the legal pressure on wildlife officials, while expediting protections for species in urgent need of help.
"This is a model cooperative effort," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "By working together, environmentalists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have found a way to expedite protection for endangered plants and animals across the United States from the Pacific Islands to Idaho to Florida. It is a winning situation for everyone, especially endangered wildlife."
Under the agreement, three months in the making, the USFWS will immediately review three species for emergency listing, issue 14 final listing decisions and eight proposed listing rules, and make decisions on four Endangered Species Act (ESA) petitions.
The USFWS will also map out critical habitat areas for the Gila chub in New Mexico and Arizona, and for four freshwater snails in New Mexico.
Another 35 are proposed for listing, 66 have been petitioned for listing, and several hundred still lack critical habitat designations.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that it will require at least $120 million to process the current backlog of species and habitats in need of protection. Though the Department of Interior requested $1.3 million more for the listing budget in 2002 than 2001, environmental groups, scientists and 13 senators have called upon Congress to increase funding for the Endangered Species Listing program to $120 million over the next five years.
"This agreement won't end all the conflicts, and it certainly won't save all of America's imperiled species, but it's a good start," said Suckling. "With so many plants and animals on the brink of extinction, it is imperative that environmental groups and the Fish and Wildlife Service work together to pull them back."
Of those lawsuits which have been completed, the Center has won 59 and lost just one.
Those lawsuits, the USFWS argues, consume critical funding and other resources that the agency could otherwise use to study species that may warrant protection.
"I am pleased that we have been able to cooperate and find common ground that will allow us to protect these species under the Endangered Species Act," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said today. "I hope this can be a model for future agreements."
While the formal agreement is still pending, the USFWS will immediately reallocate funds to begin work on the species covered by it.
"All parties to this agreement ultimately want the same thing - to conserve and recover threatened and endangered species," said Marshall Jones, acting director of the USFWS.
The USFWS has now promised to issue final decisions on ESA listing for the Mississippi gopher frog and 13 other species within a matter of weeks.
The agency will also immediately review three species that have been nominated for emergency listing under the Endangered Species Act, including the Tumbling Creek cavesnail in Missouri, the Carson wandering skipper butterfly in California and Nevada, and the pygmy rabbit in Washington state.
The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, North America's smallest rabbit, is rapidly losing ground to predators, disease, development and agriculture. Just 50 pygmy rabbits are now believed to exist, and biologists have begun capturing the animals for a captive breeding effort.
Altogether, the USFWS agreed to issue final listing decisions for 14 species and propose eight more species for listing. The agency will take action on four citizen petitions to list species under the ESA, and will designate critical habitat for the Gila chub, a fish found only in New Mexico and Arizona, and for four freshwater snails in New Mexico.
To free up resources to make these decisions within a short time frame, the environmental groups agreed to a six month delay in the mapping out of critical habitat areas for four Hawaiian invertebrates, and a nine month delay in critical habitat for three California plants and a freshwater clam from the Appalachians.
"The Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project recognizes the national and global dimensions of the current human caused extinction spasm. As such, we are eager to help critically endangered species wherever they are found," said Marty Bergoffen, staff attorney for the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project. "This agreement will provide immediate protection to some of the species facing imminent threats."