WASHINGTON (CN) – The two federal agencies tasked with listing endangered species have finalized revisions to the petition process, but environmentalists see the changes as limiting and burdensome. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service claim the latest changes are part of the Obama administration’s efforts since 2011 to make the Endangered Species Act listing process more transparent, easier to implement and more effective.
The agencies have already made changes to how critical habitat designations are made, and how species are to be prioritized for protection, changes that were also not well received by the conservation community.
The original proposal to revise how citizens may petition on behalf of an imperiled species, published in May 2015, generated such a negative response that it was revised in February. The final rule published Tuesday incorporates those revisions, but other complaints were not addressed.
“The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is the backbone of conservation efforts for America’s most imperiled plants and animals. It has helped prevent the extinctions of hundreds of species of plants and animals and promoted recovery efforts that have ensured future generations live in a world with bald eagles, American alligators and Steller sea lions,” the USFWS said.
The listing process for at-risk species can be accomplished through the candidate conservation process that is initiated by the agencies’ own biologists, or through the petition process, which is initiated by individuals, outside scientists, conservation groups or other members of the public. “The Endangered Species Act expressly allows citizens to petition for species’ protection. Scientific research confirms that citizen petitions routinely identify species at the highest risk of extinction, and the majority of the protections given to 1,600 species to date have been in response to citizen petitions,” the Center for Biological Diversity, a major petitioner and litigant on behalf of imperiled species, claimed.
The original proposal would have required petitioners to include all the information from the state wildlife agencies where the species lived in their petition, and to include “all relevant information” regarding the species. The February revisions to the proposal dropped the requirement to gather “all relevant information” as being too difficult for petitioners to certify. The requirement to obtain all the state agencies’ information on the species was likewise dropped, but petitioners must still notify each state where a species may live at least 30 days before filing the petition to ensure the states have enough time to send that information to the federal agency involved, either the USFWS for land-based species, or the NMFS for most marine species.
“These new rules were premised on right-wing myths, not facts,” CBD’s endangered species policy director Brett Hartl said. “The Endangered Species Act already requires a lengthy comment process that gives states additional privileges and multiple opportunities to provide input on the status of imperiled species. These rules are specifically intended to intimidate ordinary citizens by making it more cumbersome for them to seek protection of our imperiled plants and animals.”
Another contested change to the process is limiting the number of species in the petitions to one species per petition, which may include subspecies, varieties and distinct population segments. In the past, petitions have been filed with hundreds of species at once.
“The revisions will allow the Services and their partners to better leverage limited resources to more effectively conserve America’s imperiled wildlife,” the USFWS said.
However, even the agencies themselves have advocated an “ecosystem-wide” basis for listing multiple species at one time in the past, including one listing for 125 Hawaiian species in March, and a change to the management practices of the humpback whale national marine sanctuary last year.
“These new restrictions on citizen petitions are nothing more than a gift to industries and right-wing states that are hostile to endangered species. These rules make it harder to get imperiled species the Endangered Species Act protections they desperately need, and they do nothing to address the backlog of hundreds of imperiled species that are still waiting to get the protections they deserve,” Hartl said.
The CBD and its allies sued the USFWS over its backlog of hundreds of species waiting for listing determinations, and secured a settlement agreement with the agency in 2011 that outlined a six-year workplan for the agency to get the determinations done within a specified timeframe. That workplan winds down at the end of September, and the agency has announced its workplan for the coming seven years, to mixed response.
“The filing of a petition triggers what is supposed to be a two-year process that includes three public-comment periods. Unfortunately the Fish and Wildlife Service routinely violates this legal requirement, often taking more than a decade to complete the process. Delays in protection of species have had significant consequences, with more than 40 species having gone extinct while waiting for protection,” the CBD said in response to the final petition revisions, which are effective Oct. 27.
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