The endangered species deficit


Wolverine by Marius Strom

Experts warned of a looming crisis for decades. Congress put off hard decisions. Now there’s a towering backlog. Not the debt, the endangered species list. The backlog is several hundred species and would take about 50 years to clear if we stay at our current, resistant rate of approval and protection. The whole process is supposed to take only 15 months; instead many species have been held up for 35 years after science said they need protection.

In ideal circumstances, the Fish and Wildlife Service would go out on their own and find the species that need protecting. Instead, they just wait to get sued. And now they’ve been sued so many times they are overwhelmed.

Here’s a rough guide to where species are stuck in the process:

Step 1: Preliminary review. The Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days after a petition is filed to say whether they think there’s a case. They regularly blow the deadline.

Stuck here: Roughly 500 species, including ecosystem-wide filings to protect 403 aquatic species in the southeast, 32 Pacific mollusks and 42 snail species around Las Vegas.

In three months the Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to examine the species and figure out whether it’s really worth investigating. This is the equivalent to when someone files a court case and the defendant files for summary judgment, that is, saying the case isn’t worth anything. Just passing this test is not that significant; it just means that the species is worth considering.

The GAO, in a 2008 report showing how badly the FWS was running the endangered species program, said that the average time through this step was 900 days, not the 90 it’s supposed to be.

Step 2: 12-month review

Stuck here: Roughly 100 species. The one-year scientific review in reality drags on for many years.

Step 3: Candidate List, Waiting List, Indefinite Purgatory.

Stuck here: 265 species

The Fish and Wildlife Service calls their waiting list the CNOR or Candidate Notice of Review (CNOR). Scientists already decided these species need protection, but the wildlife service hasn’t gotten around to doing anything about it, sometimes for decades. Noah Greenwald, the ESA expert at the Center for Biological Diversity, calls this they “yes, but not yet” outcome.

Think of this as an ever-growing to do list.  According to WildEarth Guardians, 80% of the species have languished more than a decade, including 50 plants petitioned by the Smithsonian Institute in 1975.

The latest CNOR in November 2010 has 251 species, including 17 birds and 17 mammals. Five were added last year. And since the report another 14 were added, including the wolverine and walrus.

WildEarth Guardians and the Fish and Wildlife Service signed a massive settlement agreement this spring, later put on hold by a judge. The deal would effectively push every species up one category. They’d push through the 90-day reviews, the one-year reviews and with the candates they’d give an “up or down” decision.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued to stop the settlement because the settlement leaves out those 14 species added to the waiting list since November.

Everyone knew the Bush administration was dragging it feet on new listings, but rushing species off the list. When President Obama took office he was met with a towering backlog of endangered species, just like he faced Bush’s enormous deficit. Initially, he took the huge step of putting biologists back in charge instead of politicians. Or so we thought. His Interior Department under conservative Ken Salazar isn’t working off the endangered species deficit any faster than Bush would have. He’s protecting 25 a year, less than half that of Bill Clinton. And Obama’s record would only be 11 a year if it didn’t include a big batch from Hawaii.

With a total of about 850 species awaiting protection, 11- 25 species a year isn’t going to cut it. If we kept up the pace of 11 a year and added no new species, it would still take the federal government until 2087 to catch up with reality. Even at 25 a year, we’re still looking at 2044. Whether it’s under the current settlement or not, Obama and Salazar need to pick up the pace.

Read more about endangered species

seal Where to SEE SEALS (and sea lion and walrus)
coatiroo Where to SEE ODDBALL ANIMALS Coait, Prairie Dog, Otter, kangaroo, skunk, porcupine, salamander, snake, squid, pretty much anything rare

Check out the Center for Biological Diversity’s ESA page

Read WildEarth Guardian’s endangered species information

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