Feds Sued Over 10 Species Left in ‘Regulatory Purgatory’

There are hundreds of species awaiting protection from the Fish and Wildlife Service, but only 10 are still in limbo after going through all the regulatory hurdles.

A baby gopher tortoise. (Randy Browning/USFWS)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court on Thursday for failing to protect 10 species that the group says desperately need protection — and have been waiting in limbo for years.

The monarch butterfly, eastern gopher tortoise, Peñasco least chipmunk, longfin smelt, three Texas mussels, magnificent ramshorn snail, bracted twistflower and northern spotted owl have been left in “regulatory purgatory” by the Trump administration, the group claims. 

These species have gone through a petition process, an initial 90-day review (which usually takes up to a year) and a 12-month status review, and are now sitting in a category called “warranted but precluded,” because the FWS claims it needs the resources for higher-priority listings.

Most of them were first petitioned about 10 years ago. 

“This isn’t about resources or higher-priority listings,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in an interview. “It’s about political opposition and the Trump administration’s opposition to science.”

The 10 species are a fraction of the hundreds of species that are waiting for a decision on their petitions. But they are the only species left that have gone through all of the regulatory stages and still haven’t been designated as either endangered or threatened. 

“Languishing in regulatory limbo without a final listing decision can be a death sentence for these endangered and threatened species,” the lawsuit says. “At least 47 species have gone extinct while waiting for protection under the [Endangered Species] Act.”

In 2011, as part of a settlement from a lawsuit against the Bush administration filed by the Center, the FWS agreed to go through its backlog of candidate species, which allowed 260 species to get listed. Then, in 2016, the agency developed a workplan to address a backlog of over 500 species that had already gone through the 90-day review phase, but still needed a 12-month status review. 

“Under the Trump administration, they just utterly failed to complete the work required under the work plan,” Greenwald said. 

In early 2020, the Center sued over the 241 remaining species on the list which awaited decisions, as the Trump administration missed the deadline for all of the decisions. That lawsuit is still pending. 

“A lawsuit will only serve to divert more of our limited resources towards litigation and away from the important work of conserving our nation’s wildlife,” an FWS spokesman said in an email at the time the 2020 lawsuit was filed. 

A spokesperson declined to comment on the Center’s latest lawsuit Thursday. 

The FWS said that it has been making expeditious progress in adding species to the lists of endangered and threatened species, as is required under the ESA

However, the Trump administration only listed 25 species as endangered or threatened during the last four years — about six species per year and the fewest of any administration since the ESA’s passage in 1973. Each of the 25 species’ listings were compelled by litigation. 

In comparison, the Obama administration designated around 45 species per year, George W. Bush designated around 8 per year, Bill Clinton 65, George H.W. Bush 58, Ronald Reagan 30, Jimmy Carter 40 and Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford around 15 per year. 

Greenwald says the Biden administration hasn’t given the Center any sort of indication about its plans for protecting species under the ESA. 

“Scientists from around the world have said that we are in an extinction crisis,” Greenwald said. “It’s imperative that these species get protections as quickly as possible.”

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