WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released its annual list of candidate species waiting for protection under the Endangered Species Act. At just 30 species, the list marks the agency’s milestone achievement of whittling down the historic backlog of hundreds of candidate species waiting for listing determinations under the ESA, some of which were on the original list of endangered species in 1975.
That backlog spurred a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) conservation group and its allies in 2010, which resulted in a settlement agreement and a recently concluded six-year workplan for the agency to meet its legal obligations. Under the ESA, the agency has a mandated timeline for addressing petitioned species, and due to shifting political priorities and a chronic lack of funding, the agency has often lagged on meeting that mandate.
Candidate species have received initial evaluations where listings are found to be warranted, but the species have not moved forward in the listing process. However, the candidate list does not represent all the species waiting for protection, because the agency has been petitioned on behalf of hundreds of other species that have not yet made it through the initial evaluation process.
“Although the Service has made great progress reducing the backlog of candidate species, the agency faces a backlog of more than 500 species that have been petitioned for protection. The Service has developed a workplan to make decisions for 320 of these petitioned species over the next seven years, but whether it will be able to implement this workplan under a Trump administration is in serious question,” the CBD said in response to the announcement of the candidate list.
Candidate species are given a listing priority number (LPN), which reflects both the magnitude of threats faced by the species and the immediacy of those threats. The priority numbers range from one to 12 and are broken down into four sections, with each section further delimited by taxonomic levels of genus, species or subspecies/population. A genus facing imminent, high magnitude threats is ranked as LPN 1, while an imminent, high magnitude species is ranked as LPN 2, and a subspecies/population with the same threat levels is ranked as LPN 3. There are no LPN 1 genus-level plants or animals on this year’s candidate list, but there are seven LPN 2 species, and three LPN 3 subspecies/populations listed, all in the highest tier of urgency.
One of the LPN 2 species is the Puerto Rico harlequin butterfly, which was put on the Candidate List in 2011 with an initial listing evaluation of “warranted but precluded by higher listing priorities,” the legal loophole that contributed to the backlog that spurred the CBD’s lawsuit. “To date, Obama’s Interior Department has used the ‘warranted-but-precluded’ designation for 27 species, more than any other administration. Now 261 species are on the candidate list, where they receive no protection and on average wait 20 years for protection. At least 24 species have gone extinct while waiting,” the CBD said in 2011, in response to the agency’s failure to list the butterfly.
The other LPN 2 species on the current candidate list are the red-crowned parrot, three Texas mussels, a freshwater snail and a plant found in the Virgin Islands with a population numbering about 200. The LPN 3 subspecies of most concern are the island marble butterfly, the Sierra Nevada red fox, and the longfin smelt.
The Pacific walrus and the red tree vole are on the list with LPNs of 9, signifying subspecies with an imminent, moderate to low threat level. The whitebark pine, striped newt and gopher tortoise have LPNs of 8, representing species with imminent, moderate to low threat levels.
The agency noted that identification of candidate species can assist environmental planning efforts by giving notice of potential listings so landowners and resource managers can alleviate threats and possibly remove the need for the listing, or create more options for management and recovery if the listing goes forward.
That approach, encouraging preemptive voluntary efforts to head off listings, has been promoted by the agency, but controversial with conservationists. In the most recent example, it had little success in the case of the lesser prairie chicken, which has just gone back to the agency for reevaluation due to a failure of unenforceable voluntary efforts.
“The Endangered Species Act has been tremendously successful, saving more than 99 percent of the species under its care from extinction, but it only works for species once they’re protected as threatened or endangered,” CBD’s endangered species director Noah Greenwald, said. “Our sincere hope is that the Trump administration will not prevent the Service from carrying out its legal duty to protect America’s most imperiled species from extinction. And the need is great — scientists agree that the planet is undergoing its sixth major extinction crisis. The Endangered Species Act is one of the strongest laws any nation has to safeguard biological diversity in the face of ever-increasing threats.”
Information on any of the candidate species on the list will be accepted at any time, the agency said.