Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Judge puts halt on species agreement

Plan is ‘flawed,’ activists say

Express Staff Writer

A plan intended to help the federal government protect more species, including the sage grouse and wolverine, has been put on hold due to objections from a Tucson, Ariz.,-based environmental organization.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to settle a court case with advocacy group WildEarth Guardians, headquartered in Santa Fe, N.M., earlier this month by announcing a plan that would allow it to more effectively address the status of species that have been identified as needing protection under the Endangered Species Act.

But a federal judge put a hold on the agreement last week in response to a challenge from the Center for Biological Diversity, which says the plan suffers from serious flaws. The organization's stated mission is to preserve endangered species.

"We basically want the court to hold off on approving the settlement agreement until we've had a chance to explain our concerns," organization spokesman Noah Greenwald told The Associated Press.

On May 16, it filed documents in federal district court in Washington, D.C., for an order to hold the agreement, calling it vague and saying it would be too difficult to enforce. In a hearing the following day, U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan agreed, and gave the agency and WildEarth Guardians until June 20 to develop a new agreement. The Center for Biological Diversity will also be involved in the new plan's development.

The plan would have allowed the agency to review and address the needs of 251 candidate species that have been identified as needing federal protection. The review would need to be completed by September 2016.

The candidate list includes four animal species native to Idaho: the greater sage grouse, southern Idaho ground squirrel, the wolverine and the yellow-billed cuckoo.

According to the service's 2010 Candidate Notice of Review, the sage grouse has been given a priority level of eight in a system of 12 levels of priority. Level one is the highest, making it unlikely that the sage grouse would be proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act within the next few years without the approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's plan.

George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy, said he expects that most bird species on the candidate list will eventually gain federal protection.

"Science had already demonstrated that they merit protection," he said in a press release. "For too long, the candidate list had served as a waiting room for many species in need."

According to The Associated Press, the agreement would have sped up decisions on some species that have been awaiting review for more than 30 years.

The Fish and Wildlife Service would also have resolved petitions seeking protections on about 600 additional species. The agency maintains that the backlog is due to a lack of staff and funding to process applications. It reported that more than 1,230 petitions have been filed since 2007.

Katherine Wutz:

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