The U.S. Interior Department on 29 August announced that it will quickly act to protect 29 of the country's most endangered animals and plants. The plan came as a surprise because it was hammered out with hard-line environmental groups that usually file lawsuits to force the government to act. Conservation biologists are cheering the move, though they note that it barely makes a dent in the pile of species that need protection.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the government protects species by putting them on the endangered species list, deciding what habitat they need, then carrying out a recovery plan. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FSW) is way behind on the first step--it has a backlog of nearly 240 species proposed for listing. To prod it forward, conservation groups began filing scores of lawsuits around 1990. This strategy has a down side, however: Complying with court orders for these species now eats up all of FWS's $6.3 million listing budget, leaving it with no money to review other proposed species whose situation is just as perilous but that aren't part of the lawsuits.
Recognizing the agency's dilemma, the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, which has filed many of the lawsuits, and three other groups worked out a deal this summer with Interior. The activists agreed to relax some deadlines ordered by courts by a few months. That will free up $588,000 in the FWS budget to work on 29 other species. Three are slated for emergency listing: the pygmy rabbit, a butterfly called the Carson wandering skipper, and a cave snail. For others, such as the Mississippi gopher frog and the island fox, FWS will speed up the listing process or designate critical habitat. "If we can work out an agreement outside of court, it's definitely the way to go," says Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity.
"This is an important step," says conservation biologist David Wilcove of Environmental Defense, who says it will "hopefully mark the start of a dialogue" to prioritize species instead of mindlessly battling in court. Wilcove and Suckling both note, however, that experts say as many as 3000 species should probably be listed as endangered--far more than FWS can ever get to with its current budget.