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Feds sued for neglecting protections for endangered Hawaiian species

Conservationists in the 'extinction capital of the world' are concerned that the lack of critical habitats may hurtle endangered species into uncontrolled extinction.

(CN) — Hawaii is home to a great level of biodiversity, but that comes with an unfortunately corresponding level of threatened endemic species. The Center for Biological Diversity has sued the U.S. government for violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect endangered species on the Hawaiian Islands.

The complaint, filed Thursday in the United States District Court of Hawaii, alleges that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to act in the protection of 49 endangered species by neglecting to designate critical habitats for nearly six years.

“We’re the extinction capital of the world,” said Maxx Philips, attorney for the Center of Biological Diversity and director of the Center’s Hawaii program, “We have one of the highest levels of endemics, and within that we have a huge amount of endangered and threatened plants. Those species haven’t been afforded the same level of protection and funding under the law.”

The species identified in the complaint, consisting of 39 plants and 10 animals, were first listed as endangered in 2016. The Endangered Species Act dictates that critical habitats are to be designated at the same time as the listing, with a leeway only for special circumstances. At the time, the government agency indicated that these species constituted a special circumstance, and designation was deferred for what should have only been one year. Philips and other conservationists have been waiting now for six years, watching as the statute of limitations continued to run.

“Based on the fact that none of these species are reflected in the Service’s next five-year work plan, it was clear that they were not going to designate critical habitat anytime soon, so it forced our hand to file,” she said.

The endangered plant and animal species named in the complaint are distinct to the Hawaiian Islands and cannot be found elsewhere. Many have been threatened by both climate effects and human intervention. These elements existed in 2016 when the Service first listed the species as endangered and have only grown in the years since.

Temperature fluctuations and rising sea levels exacerbated by climate change degrade the islands' environment. Urbanization and the introduction of invasive species, like encroaching weeds and bushes, along with feral deer and pigs, have pushed the endemic species out of their natural habitats and decimated their quantities.

The goal of the Endangered Species Act is to not only prevent extinction but to also aid in the recovery of the species and to increase their numbers back to sustainability. Designating a critical habitat for these species is a key element in the process and is especially important in preventing other federal agencies from destroying the habitats necessary for the propagation of endangered species.

“There’s always the opportunity for nature and wildlife to bounce back. The ESA is the best tool to do that, and species with critical habitats have been demonstrated to be two times more likely to bounce back from extinction and come off the list,” Philips said in an interview with Courthouse News.

Many of the species listed are not only ecologically and scientifically significant but are also important to Native Hawaiians.

“We can’t look at the survival of these species in a vacuum. You have to have an ecosystem-based approach when you look at the protection of the species. They have all co-evolved over centuries and they need each other,” Philips said.

The list of endangered species the lawsuit includes several types of yellow-faced bee, known in Hawaiian as Nalo Meli Maoli, along with the ‘Akē‘akē or the band-rumped storm petrel.

Philips also calls particular attention to the ‘aiea tree, whose quantities on the Big Island are facing an immediate threat this week due to a wild brush fire started on Wednesday, with 20,000 acres burned by the next morning.

Philips comments that this sort of neglect is a trend across the nation, explaining that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is severely backlogged on not only in designation of critical habitats and recovery plans, but even in the listing of endangered and threatened species in the first place.

“Unfortunately, they are grossly underfunded, and not just the Fish and Wildlife Service, but specifically our jurisdiction, Hawaii and out to the Marianas, they aren’t given the resources from Washington to do what needs to be done,” she said. “Still, that doesn’t mean that from the scientific side and the cultural side, because a lot of these species do have a cultural importance to Native Hawaiians, it doesn’t mean that we can sit back and say, ‘Oh you guys don’t have appropriate funding or manpower, so we’ll just let it slide.’ These species are hurtling toward extinction, we need to do everything that we possibly can.”

The suit also names Deb Haaland in her official capacity as Secretary of the Interior, under which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is an agency. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could not be reached immediately for comment.

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