Sunday, March 23, 2008

Bush Administration Prevents New Listings Under the Endangered Species Act

One thing I have learned from watching the Bush administration is that no matter how bad you think it is, the reality is likely to be worse. We all have noticed the lack of endangered species designations despite the fact that many species are decreasing and need protection. Over the past seven years, 59 species have been listed under the Endangered Species Act; that matches the annual average under the previous two presidents. I have long suspected that political interference played a role in this, and the MacDonald case seemed to confirm that. This morning I learned that not only was there political meddling, but that the administration had set policies to make it more difficult to list species as endangered.

The director of the Fish and Wildlife Service claims that the listing process is bogged down by constant lawsuits. Granted, lawsuits related to the Endangered Species Act have doubled under the Bush administration, but lawsuits have not caused listings to decrease. Lawsuits and FOIA requests have uncovered some of the policy shifts brought by the Bush administration. These are the real cause for so few species being protected.

  • Status is evaluated based on worldwide population rather than U.S. population.
  • Range is evaluated based on current range rather than historic range.
  • If the agency identifies a species as a candidate for listing, citizens may not petition for its listing, so there is no legal deadline to follow through.
  • Files on proposed listings should include only evidence that refutes a petition rather than evidence that supports it.
At least two species, the Lake Sammamish kokanee and the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, have become extinct as a result of administration policies. Officials acknowledge that about 280 species should be on the list; WildEarth Guardians just filed a lawsuit to list 681 western species at once. The lack of recent listings should concern birders. One bird species that is in dire need of protection but has been stuck in candidate limbo is the red knot. The Fish and Wildlife Service has also refused requests to list other declining bird species such as the cerulean warbler.

Lawsuits can rectify some of the worst cases, but what good they can accomplish is limited. Legal action frequently takes months or years as cases wind through the court system and decisions are appealed. Moreover each case deals with a limited group of species - usually only one - when far more are in need of help. What we really need is a new administration that will reject policies designed to prevent new listings and follow the evidence to protect threatened species instead.