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ESA Agencies Say Latest Changes Are Innovative

WASHINGTON (CN) - The two federal agencies charged with Endangered Species Act implementation have announced policy changes regarding increased state collaboration and the use of new landowner conservation tools. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hail the policy updates published Monday as innovative.

"In our continuing effort to implement the ESA in new and innovative ways, the updates to the policy we've announced today help ensure that states are our partners in recovering endangered species," Eileen Sobeck, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said.

The changes, part of a series of actions that have been gradually implemented since they were first outlined in 2011, have frequently met resistance from the environmentalist community, including the requirement that petitioners solicit information from state wildlife agencies before submitting their petitions to the federal listing agencies. Environmentalists claim this change puts " crippling burdens on citizen petitioners," according to the Center for Biological Diversity, a frequent petitioner and litigant on behalf of imperiled species.

Another recent policy change and two new rules involving critical habitat designation were also decried by conservationists as weakening the protections already provided by the ESA, which has a track record of success. "This is a huge blow to protecting critical habitat for listed species since it will now be a death by a thousand cuts by developers and federal agencies," Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO, said earlier this month.

Even the FWS and NOAA themselves admit that the ESA, as it has been historically implemented, has an extremely high rate of success, and that the current administration has delisted a record number of species. "The ESA has prevented more than 99 percent of the species listed from going extinct, serving as the critical safety net for wildlife that Congress intended when it passed the law 40 years ago. In addition, the ESA has helped move many species from the brink of extinction to the path to recovery, including California condors, Florida panthers and whooping cranes. The Obama Administration has delisted more species due to recovery than any prior administration, including the Oregon chub, Virginia northern flying squirrel and brown pelican," the agencies noted in their announcement of the policy changes.

The current policy revisions focus both on increasing collaboration with the states, and on the use of conservation efforts with landowners. "The revised policy now references the suite of ESA conservation tools that were not available or in common use when the policy was originally developed in 1994. These tools include Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs), Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs) and Safe Harbor Agreements," according to the agencies' announcement.

Such tools have been increasingly cited in recent agency decisions. In January, the FWS announced it was going to change how it prioritized its listing workload such that species with landowner conservation efforts would receive the lowest priority, a move that was met with dismay by species advocates. "Delaying protection for plants or animals based on thin promises from states or others to provide protections is a recipe for extinction. This will be of particular concern when these species are also critically imperiled," Noah Greenwald, CBD's endangered species director said at the time.

In September 2015, the FWS determined that the greater sage-grouse no longer warranted ESA protection, which was met with a similar response. "The shortcomings of the federal sage-grouse conservation plans and a lack of regulatory certainty are contrary to and undermine the Fish and Wildlife Service's determination that the species no longer warrants protection under the ESA," Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife said.

In October 2015, the Service announced that the desert tortoise did not merit federal protection due to these conservation collaborations. "Scientists estimate that 227 species would have gone extinct if not for ESA protections. Without ESA protections, desert tortoises are in greater danger of extinction," WildEarth Guardians said in their reaction statement.

However, the listing agencies maintain that the new policy changes will enhance the implementation of the intent of the ESA, and will provide for more engagement in the process, more transparency and access to better science. "Changes to the policy include more proactive conservation of imperiled species before they require protections of the ESA, expanded opportunities for engaging in listing and recovery activities, and improved planning with state agencies across a species' range. States often possess scientific data and expertise on imperiled species within their borders and have close working relationships with local governments and landowners, and as such are critical partners of the Services," they said. This newest policy change is effective immediately, on Feb. 22.

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