An endangered species truce

 

The Jemez Mountains salamander: 28 years.  The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse: 26 years. The lesser prairie chicken: 13 years.

That’s how long these three species have been awaiting potential listing under the Endangered Species Act; there are 248 other species in the Act’s virtual antechamber too, and half have been languishing there for more than 20 years.

Jemez Mountains salamander

The nocturnal Jemez Mountains salamander, found in only a small area of New Mexico, has been awaiting listing since 1983.

Photo courtesy NPS

Over the past four years, frustrated conservation groups like WildEarth Guardians have filed more than a thousand petitions to force the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to consider listing specific species, and pursued dozens of lawsuits when the agency missed deadlines. This tide of litigation has overwhelmed agency staffers and swallowed a big chunk of the budget; finally the Service, in its 2012 budget request, asked Congress to cap the number of petitions it had to consider each year. The beleaguered agency wrote, “The many requests for species petitions has inundated the listing program’s domestic species listing capabilities.”

Now, a historic settlement between the Interior Department and WildEarth Guardians means that FWS will make a final determination on all those candidate species by September 2016. Over the next two years, it will also consider a host of citizen petitions for listing that it hasn’t yet gotten to. In exchange, the environmental group will hold off on filing any more lawsuits until March 2017, and it won’t submit more than 10 new listing petitions each year.  The Washington Post reports:

Currently, the service has identified 251 species, including Gunnison’s prairie dog and the Pacific walrus, that face the risk of extinction but cannot receive federal protection because the government lacks the money to implement conservation measures such as identifying critical habitat for them. The agency estimates that it will be able to make final listing decisions within a year — which is mandated by law — on just 4 percent of the flora and fauna that deserve to make it on the endangered list.

“We’re happy to see the Interior Department taking care of this long-standing problem,” said John Kostyak, vice president of wildlife conservation for the National Wildlife Federation. “The focus should be getting species protected and avoiding unnecessary resources being devoted to the courtroom.”

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan is expected to approve the plan later today.

"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,” said Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes in a press release,  “rather than having our workload driven by the courts."

Optimistic words, but the settlement applies only to WildEarth Guardians, and there's still the Center for Biological Diversity to be reckoned with. One of the nation's most militant environmental groups, CBD has filed more than 600 lawsuits and petitions with FWS, resulting in the listing of 380 species. One of the group's founders, Kieran Suckling, told HCN in a 2009 interview,

(Lawsuits) are one tool in a larger campaign, but we use lawsuits to help shift the balance of power from industry and government agencies, toward protecting endangered species. That plays out on many levels. At its simplest, by obtaining an injunction to shut down logging or prevent the filling of a dam, the power shifts to our hands. The Forest Service needs our agreement to get back to work, and we are in the position of being able to powerfully negotiate the terms of releasing the injunction.

New injunctions, new species listings and new bad press take a terrible toll on agency morale. When we stop the same timber sale three or four times running, the timber planners want to tear their hair out. They feel like their careers are being mocked and destroyed -- and they are. So they become much more willing to play by our rules and at least get something done. Psychological warfare is a very underappreciated aspect of environmental campaigning.


Jodi Peterson is
HCN's managing editor.