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Greens Seek Protection |for Three Fish Species

(CN) - The federal government needs to determine whether three fish species native to the Southeastern U.S., should be listed as endangered or threatened, greens claim in Federal Court.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday, claiming they've violated the Endangered Species Act. The fish species at the center of the lawsuit are the sickle darter, trispot darter and yellow lance.

Three reports are required for potentially-endangered species under the ESA when a petition is presented: the 90-day finding, the 12-month finding and a final listing determination. The nonprofit says the Fish and Wildlife Service has stalled on a follow-up report for more than three years.

"On April 20, 2010, the Center submitted a petition to list the sickle darter, trispot darter, and yellow lance as 'endangered' or 'threatened' pursuant to the ESA. FWS issued '90-day findings' in response to the Center's petition on September 27, 2011 [sic], concluding that 'the petition present[ed] substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing may be warranted,'" the complaint states. "FWS was required to follow with '12-month findings' as to whether listing these species is 'warranted' by April 20, 2011, yet it has failed to make these requisite findings to date. Defendants are therefore in violation of the ESA."

The group says it is important that the Fish and Wildlife Service make a determination quickly because species are not protected until they are listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA. In addition to this week's lawsuit, they called on the federal government to increase funding for endangered species like the three fish.

"People don't think about the little species that live in streams and rivers, but there's a whole fascinating world just under the surface," Center scientist Tierra Curry said in a statement. "The Obama administration and Congress need to dramatically increase funding for endangered species in the Southeast to keep the region's incredibly rich natural heritage from being lost forever."

The sickle darter, discovered as a subspecies in 2007, is native to the Appalachia area and "its current populations are severely fragmented," the complaint states. It is identified by a black stripe on its side and usually grows to about three and a half inches. They have already gone extinct in North Carolina.

The trispot darter is found in parts of Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. A small fish at about one and a half inches long, it was thought to be extinct in Alabama for more than 50 years but was recently discovered in a stream there in 2008.

The yellow lance is a mussel native to Virginia and North Carolina "and possibly Maryland and South Carolina," though that is not certain, according to the complaint. It propels its larvae into fish's faces so tiny mussels can grow on the fish gills. Mussels like the yellow lance are threatened by pollution and by anything that threatens their host fish.

"It's a tragedy that freshwater animals are being lost to extinction at a thousand times the natural rate," Curry said. "It's important that we save the animals that depend on our rivers and lakes, because protecting them will help protect the clean water people need to survive, too."

The Center and the federal government entered into a settlement in 2011 addressing the filing of deadline lawsuits like Wednesday's, according to the complaint.

"Under the settlement, the Center may file deadline suits addressing up to 10 species, and to obtain remedies from up to three deadline suits, in each fiscal year from 2012 to 2016. If the Center files suits addressing more than 10 species, or obtains remedies from more than three suits in any one of these fiscal years, negotiated deadlines that defendants must meet under the agreement may be pushed back to 2016," the complaint states. "Under the settlement, a 'remedy' means a stipulated settlement agreement or judicially-enforceable order requiring the FWS to make any finding, listing determination, or critical habitat determination for a species before April 1, 2017. The instant complaint is a 'deadline suit' as defined in the parties' settlement."

The Tucson, Ariz.-based group seeks the issuance of findings for the three fish species and attorney fees.

Amy Atwood is representing the Center for Biological Diversity.

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