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It May Get a Lot Harder to Protect Imperiled Species

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The federal government wants to make it harder for species like the Siskiyou mariposa lily to be considered for protection as Endangered. | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Obama administration is suggesting a revamp of the rules under which wildlife species in trouble receive protection under the Endangered Species Act, and that has some environmentalists seeing red.

Under current rules, interested citizens and conservation groups can petition the federal government to grant a species protection under the act. That petition sets in motion a process by which federal agencies must consider and rule on the petition, either listing the species as Threatened or Endangered, or deciding the species doesn't need the protection that listing would bring.

The new proposed rules, announced last week, would add several time-consuming steps to the process, including a requirement that citizens petitioning the government to list a species consult with wildlife agencies in every state where the species is found. State governments have often been stalwartly opposed to new federal listings of species such as the sage grouse, and conservation groups are charging that the new rules would essentially end new listings for controversial species.

The new policy would also require that petitioners limit their petitions to one species at a time. At present, petitions are allowed for multiple species at a time.

In making the announcement, USFWS said that the increased paperwork and agency consultation requirements proposed for citizen petitions would "improve the effectiveness of the [Endangered Species] Act."

"This boneheaded new policy is the exact opposite of what's needed to ensure that plants and animals get timely protection under the Endangered Species Act," said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity. "There has been a backlog of hundreds of species needing protection for decades, yet the Obama administration is placing additional burdens on the process for identifying species in need."

Under the current process, the agency being petitioned -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for terrestrial species and most freshwater fish, and the National Marine Fisheries Service for oceanic species and anadromous fish -- must rule on a petition within two years of receiving it.

The proposed new state agency consultation rule would apply only to petitions to USFWS, and then only for petitions to list species. Petitions to downlist species from Endangered to Threatened, or to remove species from protection under the Endangered Species Act altogether, would not require state consultation. That despite the fact that the stated reason for mandatory state consultation -- to acquire the "best available science" from agencies that in many cases are responsible for implementing protection of listed species -- would apply just as much to petitions to delist species.

Under the new rules, petitioners would be required to provide state wildlife agencies with a copy of their petition thirty days in advance of filing it with USFWS, and to include any responses from the state agencies received within those 30 days in the petition. In some cases, where a species is restricted in range to one or two states, that may not be much of a burden, but in cases where the species occurs in most of the United States, that requirement could become onerous indeed. The recent petition to list monarch butterflies as an Endangered species would have required consulting with wildlife agencies in every state but Alaska.

Members of the public now have until mid-July to comment on the proposed rule changes. Other new rules likely to be proposed by the Obama administration this year include increasing public access to information about the location of potential listed species -- a possible boon to poachers -- and moves to replace legal protection under the act in certain circumstances with voluntary measures.

"Endangered species management under the Obama administration unfortunately looks a lot like it did under the Bush administration," said Greenwald. "With a growing human footprint, use of ever more dangerous pesticides and other pollutants and climate change, endangered species need more funding and stronger protections -- not policies that cater to the unfounded concerns of state agencies and industries opposed to endangered species protections in the first place."

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