WASHINGTON (CN) – An environmental group and federal agency have struck a deal with hopes of ending a backlog on the listing of hundreds of threatened and endangered species. WildEarth Guardians and the Department of Interior agreed to preserve 251 species on the list of candidates for protection by 2016, in exchange for no new lawsuits until 2017.
“The candidate list has been the black hole of the Endangered Species Act,” WildEarth Guardians attorney Jay Tutchton said in a statement about the settlement. The group says 150 species have been queued up on the list for the better part of 20 years, while 57 species have been waiting more than 30 years.
The Center for Biological Diversity, an advocate for endangered species, says at least 24 species have gone extinct nationwide while waiting on the list of species that are candidates or warranted for review. The group says 17 more species went extinct while their listing petitions were actually under review.
The agreement between WildEarth and the government settles a dozen lawsuits over species listing. Many of the 251 species sitting on the list are plants and invertebrates, such as the whorled sunflower and Indian Grave Point cave beetle.
The Department of the Interior characterized the settlement as a “work plan” that will allow it to prioritize its efforts and bring clarity to species listing determinations.
The plan “will serve as a catalyst to move past the gridlock and acrimony of the past several years,” Fish and Wildlife Service acting director Rowan Gould said in a statement.
The department claims time spent in court has been consuming most of the resources earmarked for its endangered-species-listing program.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a powerhouse species litigator, says the record does not support this.
“Species have been listed because of, not in spite of court orders,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the center, told the Courthouse News Service.
Greenwald said the center supports endangered-species listing, but thinks the agreement could’ve gone further. For example, it didn’t include species added to the candidate list after November last year, which include the Pacific walrus and North American wolverine.
The agreement establishes a timetable for publishing proposed listing rules or not warranted decisions for the 251 species by the end of September 2016. It also specifies deadlines for certain findings on other species, such as the end of 2012 for a listing decision on the Mexican wolf, which is endangered but classified as “nonessential experimental.”
For its part, WildEarth will dismiss pending listing lawsuits and not file any new suits over the 251 species until March 2017. It also agreed to file a maximum of 10 listing petitions per year until the 2016 deadline.
WildEarth apparently filed 700 of all 1,230 species listing petitions in the last four years.
The federal agency agreed to grant the group legal costs.
Greenwald said questions, including on enforceability of the agreement, give the center – which has worked on the majority of the species and was party to some of the lawsuits – grounds to consider opposing it.
Although the agreement doesn’t prevent groups besides WildEarth Guardians from suing over species, courts could point to it to delay responding to species petitions, Greenwald noted.
Other groups struck a settlement of similar scope in the 1990s, which resulted in threatened and endangered listing of many species during that decade.