At the end of May, the Interior Department announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was running out of money. Officials blamed the budget shortfall on the agency’s need to comply with court orders brought on by environmentalists’ lawsuits.
Now, to address its
$150 million backlog, the Service plans to approach a host of
judges and ask for extensions on critical-habitat designation for
32 species, including the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, Mexican
spotted owl, California red-legged frog, bull trout, and the
southwestern arroyo toad.
Added to the Endangered Species
Act in 1978, the critical-habitat provision requires Fish and
Wildlife to identify habitat that is “essential” for
the recovery of a species. But critical habitat has been a
“bone of contention” for four administrations, says
Hugh Vickery, an Interior Department communications officer. He
says environmentalists use the term to mislead people.
Critical-habitat court settlements don’t help species, he
says; rather, they force “biologists (to) go out, draw a line
on a map and designate critical habitat.”
according to Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for
Biological Diversity, the agency’s own studies show that
species with critical-habitat designation are recovering twice as
fast as species without them.
The Center accuses Interior
Secretary Gale Norton of orchestrating the budget crisis, by first
low-balling the agency’s budget, then refusing the
supplemental money congressional Democrats tried to tack onto the
budget. “They’re pleading poverty,” says the
Center’s Peter Galvin, “But they haven’t asked
(Congress) for sufficient funds to carry out their
Interior Department spokesman Vickery says
that’s “a bunch of nonsense,” and says
environmentalists are asking the agency to designate critical
habitat “at a time when they don’t have the scientific
information to do it.”