The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week unveiled a work plan that officials say will allow the agency to focus its resources on the species most in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Service filed the work plan Tuesdy in a consolidated case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as part of a proposed agreement with one of the agency’s most frequent plaintiffs, WildEarth Guardians.
Under the agreement, WildEarth Guardians has agreed to dismiss pending lawsuits and refrain from initiating new listing deadline-related litigation until March 30, 2017, and limit the number of species that it petitions to list to no more than 10 per year.
The Service will use this respite from litigation to devote the full resources of the listing program to developing listing determinations for each of the 251 species listed in the 2010 Candidate Notice of Review, and concurrent critical habitat determinations for those species listed. Completing all of these determinations is expected to take up to six years.
During the six-year period, the Service will issue proposed listing rules or not-warranted findings for each of the 251 species, and, for any species proposed for listing, will make final listing determinations within one year.
The work plan, if approved by the Court, will enable the agency to systematically, over a period of six years, review and address the needs of more than 250 species now on the list of candidates for protection under the ESA to determine if they should be added to the Federal Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants.
“In the more than 35 years since its passage, the Endangered Species Act has proved to be a critical safety net for America’s imperiled fish, wildlife, and plants,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes. “For the first time in years, this work plan will give the wildlife professionals of the Fish and Wildlife Service the opportunity to put the needs of species first and extend that safety net to those truly in need of protection, rather than having our workload driven by the courts. It will also give states, stakeholders, and the public much-needed certainty.”
Under the work plan, the Service has laid out a schedule for making listing determinations for species that have been identified as candidates for listing, as well as for a number of species that have been petitioned for protection under the ESA. If agreed to by the Court, this plan will enable the Service to again prioritize its workload based on the needs of candidate species, while also providing state wildlife agencies, stakeholders, and other partners clarity and certainty about when listing determinations will be made.
“This work plan will serve as a catalyst to move past the gridlock and acrimony of the past several years, enabling us to be more efficient and effective in both getting species on the list and working with our partners to recover those species and get them off the list as soon as possible,”
said Acting Service Director Rowan Gould. “This is just the first step in our efforts to actively engage conservation partners and the public in the search for improved and innovative ways to conserve and recover imperiled species.”
The Service’s highest priority is to make implementation of the ESA less complex, less contentious, and more effective. Gould noted that at the direction of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the Service has begun a review of its implementation of the ESA designed to identify ways to eliminate unnecessary procedural requirements; improve the clarity and consistency of regulations; engage the states, tribes, conservation organizations, and private landowners as more effective conservation partners; encourage greater creativity in the implementation of the Act; and reduce the frequency and intensity of conflicts as much as possible.
A candidate species is one for which the agency has determined that a proposal to list is warranted. The Service maintains a Candidate List that is reviewed annually.
The Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 to protect plants and animal species facing extinction. The ESA currently protects more than 1,300 species in the U.S. and about 570 species abroad. The law allows citizens, groups, and government agencies to petition for species to be protected under the ESA, and sets specific statutory timelines for responding to those petitions. Unlike many other federal laws, the ESA contains a broad “citizen suit” provision enabling groups and individuals to sue to enforce these deadlines established under the ESA.
The Candidate List was originally envisioned as an administrative tool that would identify species for which the Service would shortly make listing determinations. But as the Listing Program became inundated with petitions and lawsuits, species began to accumulate on the list. The sheer volume and mandatory nature of court orders, settlement-agreement obligations, and statutory deadlines related to petition findings and other listing-related litigation has threatened to consume most of the Service’s available funding and staff.
In the last four years, the Service has been petitioned to list more than 1,230 species, nearly as many species as have been listed during the previous 30 years of administering the ESA. After numerous lawsuits were filed with respect to these petitions, the Service initiated the consolidation and transfer of pending lawsuits from a number of different district courts to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. This consolidation allowed the agency to have a single forum in which to resolve comprehensively and efficiently the conflicting demands on the listing program.
The Service says its ability to address the backlog of more than 250 candidate species and ensure the orderly and timely listing of species under the Endangered Species Act is in direct proportion to the agency’s ability to balance that workload with other Listing Program duties. The agreement, reached with WildEarth Guardians, would enable the Service to restore that balance if approved by the court.
If the Service determines that listing is warranted for a species, the agency will propose that species for listing and allow the public to review and comment on the proposal before making a final determination. A list of these candidate species is available at http://www.fws.gov/endangered/improving_ESA/listing_workplan.html
The best available information regarding a species is considered and evaluated using the following five factors provided in the ESA:
-- The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range;
-- Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;
-- disease or predation;
-- The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms;
-- The natural or manmade factors affecting its survival.
A species is added to the list when it is determined to be endangered or threatened because of any one of these five factors. The listing process is supposed to use the best available scientific and commercial data and peer-review to ensure sound science and sound decision-making.