ESA Petition Revisions Proposed to Save Money

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The two federal agencies tasked with listing endangered species jointly proposed to revise the Endangered Species Act’s petition process, but conservationists are not happy.
     The proposal published Thursday by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service would make the best use of available resources, increase “stakeholder engagement” and improve transparency, according to the agencies’ announcement.
     Calling the move “boneheaded,” the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a frequent petitioner and litigant on behalf of endangered species, maintains the proposal would have the opposite effect, by placing crippling burdens on citizen petitioners, according to the group’s response statement.
     “The petition process is a central feature of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and serves a beneficial public purpose… to empower the public, in effect, to direct the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to (1) species that may be imperiled and not otherwise known to the services, (2) changes to a listed species’ threats or other circumstances that warrant that species being reclassified,” according to the proposal.
     The Endangered Species Act has prevented more than 99 percent of listed species from going extinct, and has helped move many species from near extinction to recovery, including California condors, Florida panthers and whooping cranes, the agencies said.
     “These actions will make an effective and robust law even more successful, and will also reinforce the importance of states, landowners and sound science in that effort,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in the announcement.
     The proposal’s revisions clarify and spell out in exhaustive detail the information that is to be supplied in petitions to add or remove species from the lists, or to change the status of a species, such as uplisting a threatened species to endangered status, or downlisting an endangered species to threatened status. Additional information is required for petitions to designate or revise critical habitat.
     “For decades, the Endangered Species Act has helped protect threatened species and their habitats,” Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said in the announcement. “The changes announced by the services amount to an improved way of doing business, one that advances the likelihood of conservation gains across the nation while reducing burdens and promoting certainty.”
     Two provisional requirements added to the petition process represent significant changes. One would mandate that petitions be limited to one species, which seems to fly in the face of numerous examples of previous “ecosystem-based” and multiple species listings touted by the agencies as a method to better prioritize and focus conservation efforts. “Requiring petitions to cover only one species would also dramatically decrease efficiency and runs directly counter to a longstanding policy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move protection in multi-species packages, precisely for efficiency purposes,” according to the CBD.
     The other significant change is a requirement to provide advance notice of the petition to all states in the species’ range, and to include the information on the species from all the involved states in the petition.
     The requirement to submit the petition to the involved states 30 days in advance of submitting it to the agency is proposed only for the Fish and Wildlife Service at this time due to the “greater logistical difficulties” of coordinating states regarding marine species, but the agencies are considering including the Fisheries Service as well, according to the action.
     “The services are concerned that the states, which often have considerable experience and information on the species within their boundaries, have opportunity to be involved in providing information as part of the petition process.”
     The CBD countered that states already have “ample opportunity for input” during the extensive comment process, and pointed out that some states have not been cooperative in the listing process in the past. “The new requirements would discourage citizens from filing petitions, extend process times once petitions are filed, and invite litigation challenging petition determinations from states hostile to protection of wildlife,” the group noted.
      “This boneheaded new policy is the exact opposite of what’s needed to ensure that plants and animals get timely protection under the Endangered Species Act,” CBD’s endangered species director Noah Greenwald said. “There has been a backlog of hundreds of species needing protection for decades, yet the Obama administration is placing additional burdens on the process for identifying species in need.”
     Comments on the proposal are due July 20, 2015.

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