District Judge Roger Strand chided the service for having repeatedly missed congressionally imposed deadlines under the Endangered Species Act by 11 months to more than two years. Affected by the decision are the jaguar, the Sonora tiger salamander, the Canelo Hills ladies' tresses, the Huachuca water umbel, and the previously listed Southwestern willow flycatcher and cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.
All depend at least in part for their survival on one of the Southwest's most battered habitats: the cottonwood-willow forests that have largely succumbed over the years to groundwater pumping, cattle grazing, firewood cutting and road-building.
"The courts are now recognizing that the agencies are not credible in their efforts to protect species," said Robin Silver, conservation director for the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, which had filed suit to get these species listed and their habitats protected.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has not commented on the decision or decided whether to appeal. Its attorneys had argued that the federal agency lacked staff and money to meet its deadlines, and that priorities had to be set for which species to protect.
The judge ruled that while officials have the power to decide how to spend the money they get, "they don't have carte blanche to decide not to carry out their duties under the guise of resource allocation."
Now, the cash-strapped agency must decide how to protect these species in the face of strong resistance from ranchers, developers and other private interests. Environmentalists say the first and boldest step the service could take would be to quickly develop recovery plans for each species, because that would clearly spell out how developers and other private interests could be affected by the listings.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials say they are more likely to protect these species with gentle approaches such as habitat conservation plans and other negotiated agreements with ranchers and landowners than with regulations or enforcement orders. But they cannot say when they'll have a plan for any of these species. That includes the Southwestern willow flycatcher, listed in 1995 and down to 300 to 500 pairs.
"Our problem is that the same person who would be doing a recovery plan has to do consultations with other agencies and work with landowners," said Sam Spiller, field supervisor for the service's Phoenix office. "All I can tell you is that we know (plans) are needed and we will try to complete them."
* Tony Davis
Tony Davis reports from Tucson, Arizona.