WASHINGTON (CN) - Thursday's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcement of a draft policy for prioritizing endangered species decisions was met with skepticism by a prominent environmental group. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Service's most frequent litigator, expressed concern that the agency's new approach is inadequate to address the growing backlog of species waiting for listing decisions.
The Service's new prioritization plan stresses collaboration between the agency and its state agency partners. "This methodology will help us strategically prioritize work on Endangered Species Act listing petitions to ensure the most urgent wildlife needs are addressed first, while also providing a common sense and defensible path to address all petitions," Director Dan Ashe said. "The methodology will help us provide greater certainty and transparency to our partners through subsequent development of a publicly available, strategic workplan that reflects our work priorities."
The CBD said that the new method would de-prioritize species when voluntary conservation efforts were in place or being developed. "We agree with prioritizing protection of known critically imperiled species and have worked with the Service and scientists over the years to do precisely that," Noah Greenwald, CBD's endangered species director said. "But 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."
The Service plans to place its current workload of status reviews and findings into five categories, or "bins," that are ranked from "1: Highest Priority: Critically Imperiled" to the lowest priority of "5: Limited Data Currently Available." Bin 2 is for species where the Service has strong scientific data for a clear status decision, Bin 3 is for species for which new information is being developed that would influence the listing decision, and Bin 4 is for species that have "proactive conservation efforts by states, landowners, and stakeholders" either established or in development, putting such species very low in listing priority. In seeming contradiction, the agency said that "placing a species in this bin does not put off working on the listing action; it just prioritizes work on species in Bins 1, 2, and 3 for completion first."
The Service has over 500 unresolved status reviews and 12-month petition findings in its current workload, the agency noted in the draft policy. Despite recent efforts to streamline the process, the Service has not been able to keep up with its workload demands due to limited resources. The prioritized list would be developed into a National Listing Workplan, the agency said, which would include multi-year timelines and be posted online.
Ironically, the Service acknowledged that the existing workplan, forced on the agency by a 2011 court-ordered settlement agreement resulting from litigation by the CBD and its allies, "included transparent, multi-year timelines," that "helped catalyze successful conservation efforts for species including the greater sage-grouse, Montana arctic grayling, New England cottontail rabbit, and dunes sagebrush lizard, among others." Nevertheless, the Service has not been able to meet the listing deadlines mandated by the Endangered Species Act for species that have been more recently petitioned or are yet to be petitioned.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a clear mandate to provide prompt protection to species at risk of extinction, but has consistently fallen short. Until recently, hundreds of species known to need protection spent decades waiting for protection on a list of candidate species. In accordance with a 2011 settlement agreement with the Center, the Service has addressed much of this backlog of candidate species, but has fallen behind in considering petitioned or other imperiled species," Greenwald said.
The Service used a candidate list of species prior to 1996, when it was abolished. The ensuing mounting backlog of stalled listing determinations over the following decade led to the lawsuits that resulted in the 2011 settlement agreement and multi-year workplan.
The new draft plan "is a half measure that will do nothing to speed protection for the many hundreds of species desperately in need of protection," Greenwald said. "Instead, what is needed is more funding and the political backbone to systematically address the backlog of clearly imperiled species that remain unprotected and at risk of extinction." The notice of the new methodology and prioritization policy is scheduled to publish Jan. 15 and comments are due by Feb. 16.
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