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Clearing The Backlog Of Endangered Species Cases

May 11, 2011

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service unveiled a new work plan on Tuesday to help the agency clear some 250 backlogged cases of plant and wildlife species in need of protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).

According to court documents filed on Tuesday with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the proposal calls for reviews of pending requests to be completed within six years.

“In the more than 35 years since its passage, the Endangered Species Act has proved to be a critical safety net for America’s imperiled fish, wildlife, and plants,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes.

“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. It will also give states, stakeholders, and the public much-needed certainty.”

Officials with the Service said the new plan is part of a proposed settlement with one of the agency’s most frequent plaintiffs, WildEarth Guardians, who have sued the department over its handling of the backlogged cases.

The proposal includes a schedule for making listing determinations for species that have been identified as candidates for listing, as well as for a number of species that have been petitioned for protection under the ESA.  A candidate species is one for which the agency has determined that a proposal to list is warranted. 

If approved by the Court, the plan would allow the agency to prioritize its workload based on the needs of candidate species, while also providing state wildlife agencies, stakeholders, and other partners clarity and certainty about when listing determinations will be made, the Service said.

“This work plan will serve as a catalyst to move past the gridlock and acrimony of the past several years, enabling us to be more efficient and effective in both getting species on the list and working with our partners to recover those species and get them off the list as soon as possible,” said Acting Service Director Rowan Gould.

“This is just the first step in our efforts to actively engage conservation partners and the public in the search for improved and innovative ways to conserve and recover imperiled species.”

The Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 to protect plants and animal species facing extinction. The law, which currently protects more than 1,300 species in the U.S. and some 570 species abroad, allows citizens, groups, and government agencies to petition for species to be protected, and sets specific statutory timelines for responding to those petitions. 

However, unlike many other federal laws, the ESA contains a broad “citizen suit” provision enabling groups and individuals to sue to enforce deadlines established under the act.

The Candidate List was originally envisioned as an administrative tool that would identify species for which the Service would shortly make listing determinations.  However, as the program became inundated with petitions and lawsuits, species began to accumulate on the list.  The agency said the sheer volume and mandatory nature of court orders, settlement-agreement obligations, and statutory deadlines related to petition findings and other listing-related litigation has threatened to consume most of the Service’s available funding and staff.

Indeed, the Service has been petitioned to list more than 1,230 species in the last four years — nearly as many species as have been listed during the previous 30 years of administering the ESA.

After numerous lawsuits were filed over these petitions, the Service initiated the consolidation and transfer of pending lawsuits from a number of district courts to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, giving the agency a single forum in which to resolve and the conflicting demands on the program.

If the Service determines that listing is warranted for a species, the agency will propose that species for listing, and allow the public to review and comment on the proposal before making a final determination.

Image Caption: The Gunnison’s Prairie Dog (Cynomys gunnisoni) is on the list of candiate species. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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