Environmentalists Demand Federal Action on 19 Neglected Species

The Fish and Wildlife Service is accused of letting suffering species languish while it delays decisions on their protected status.

A Sierra Nevada red fox is seen in California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park in 2002. (Keith Slausen/USFWS)

(CN) — The Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday, alleging it failed to protect several vulnerable species during former President Donald Trump’s administration. 

“The Endangered Species Act is incredibly successful at saving species from extinction, but only if they’re provided its protections in the first place,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the center, in a statement on Thursday.

In a lawsuit filed in Washington federal court, the nonprofit group pointed to 19 species from across the U.S. that it says are owed protections as threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

 “These 19 animals and plants are among hundreds waiting for action from the Biden administration,” Greenwald said. 

From types of flowers and bees to minnows and foxes, the Center for Biological Diversity says many species that are in danger of extinction have been long awaiting protected status. 

Among the creatures the suit is aiming to protect are the Franklin’s bumblebee from Oregon, the Sierra Nevada red fox and Hermes copper butterfly from California, and Bartram’s stonecrop and Beardless chinchweed from Arizona.

When a species is listed as endangered or threatened, the FWS is required by the Endangered Species Act to “issue any regulations deemed necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of such species.” The agency must also designate a critical habitat for the species for plants or animals that are on the list.

The environmental group is asking a federal judge in the nation’s capital to ensure that the FWS designates critical habitats for eight plants and the Suwannee moccasinshell found in Florida, and the pearl darter fish in Mississippi.

Long delays in finalizing protected status under the ESA has been a problem for decades, the group says, noting that at least 47 species in line for protection have gone extinct since the law was passed nearly 50 years ago.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s listing program is broken and badly in need of reform,” Greenwald said.

The 26-page complaint lists the agency’s acting director, Martha Williams, as a defendant alongside the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, who is now Deb Haaland, the country’s first Native American cabinet secretary. 

The FWS released a plan in 2016 to address a portion of the more than 500 species waiting for protection in the U.S. But the Center for Biological Diversity said the agency neglected to make dozens of findings every year since because of interference from the Trump administration.

 “In 2020 the Trump Fish and Wildlife Service failed to make decisions for 58 species identified in its workplan,” the group said on its website.

The Republican former president pushed, often successfully, to roll back environmental protections throughout his term—paving the way for industry interests while conservation groups fought back through legal challenges.

 The latest change came in late December when departing directors of the FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service narrowed the definition of a habitat under the ESA to only grant protection for a species’ critical habitat.

The Center for Biological Diversity said Thursday that, overall, the Trump administration had “protected only 25 species under the Endangered Species Act — the fewest of any administration since the Act was passed in 1973.”

That number is miniscule compared to the 360 species protected by the Obama administration and 523 under the Clinton administration, according to the group. 

“It remains to be seen if the Biden administration will do better,” the group said.

In the past few weeks, the new administration has proposed protection for the threatened Suwannee alligator snapping turtle and allocated critical habitats for creatures like the candy darter fish of West Virginia and a freshwater mussel. 

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