The U.S. Interior Department said it will reduce a backlog of more than 250 cases seeking protection for wildlife and plants under the Endangered Species Act, seeking to end a lawsuit brought by an environmental group.
The plan, filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, calls for reviews of pending requests to be completed within six years, according to court documents filed today by the department.
The proposal was part of a settlement with WildEarth Guardians, an environmental and wildlife group based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one of the department’s most frequent legal opponents. The law has been in effect for 35 years and protects more than 1,300 species in the U.S.
“For the first time in years, this work plan will give the wildlife professionals of the Fish and Wildlife Service the opportunity to put the needs of species first and extend that safety net to those truly in need of protection, rather than having our workload driven by the courts,” said David Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior.
The Obama administration proposed $24.6 million for endangered-species listing, up from $22.1 million in 2010.
The program will streamline a process that previously would have led to possibly hundreds of individual legal claims, said Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director for WildEarth.
‘Good For Species’
“It’s good for the species,” Rosmarino said. “Some have been waiting for protection for over 30 years and so we think the agreement” would “advance the endangered special program in an intelligent way.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service, after the plan is adopted, would seek to protect the species added to the list with regulations, technical assistance and grants to support conservation projects.
The U.S. will need to make a final determination on which of the more than 250 species seeking to be listed are “warranted but precluded,” a loophole provided in the statute. About 150 requests have been pending for more than 20 years and 57 have waited more than 30 years. Ninety-eight percent of the candidates are imperiled by habitat loss and more than half are threatened by disease or predators. An additional 37 percent are threatened by climate change, according to the group.
Under the accord, the group agreed it would file fewer than 10 additional petitions each year to let the Interior Department clear the backlog, Rosmarino said.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee any of species awaiting classification will be listed, said Patrick Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor who specializes in endangered species cases. The certainty of the process will allow the groups to decide how to proceed, he said.
Environmental and wildlife groups may eventually file lawsuits challenging U.S. rulings that individual species aren’t endangered, he said.
“It’s a very positive step in a significant effort to clear the backlog,” Parenteau said. “At least it will get decisions on whether they will be listed or not.”
The settlement must be approved by a U.S. judge in Washington.
The agreement will extend federal protection “to many more deserving species than otherwise would have been the case,” both parties said in a joint filing to the court.
The case is In Re Endangered Species Act Section 4 Deadline Litigation, 10-377, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Washington).
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