Saturday, March 06, 2010

Endangered But Not Endangered

Greater Sage-Grouse / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

In its Friday news dump, the US Fish and Wildlife Service finally announced whether it would list the Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
Salazar made the announcement in conjunction with a finding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that, based on accumulated scientific data and new peer-reviewed information and analysis, the greater sage-grouse warrants the protection of the Endangered Species Act but that listing the species at this time is precluded by the need to address higher priority species first. The greater sage-grouse will be placed on the candidate list for future action, meaning the species would not receive statutory protection under the ESA and states would continue to be responsible for managing the bird....

Adding the species to the candidate list will allow the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies an opportunity to continue to work cooperatively with private landowners to conserve the candidate species. This includes financial and technical assistance, and the ability to develop conservation agreements that provide regulatory assurances to landowners who take actions to benefit the species. One such agreement was signed last month in western Idaho, encompassing an area of over half a million acres.
The agency also announced that there was insufficient evidence to treat the Mono Basin population of Greater Sage-Grouse as a separate subspecies. As a result, it will be handled together with Greater Sage-Grouse in other areas for listing purposes. This population is found in California and Nevada.

The decision leaves the Greater Sage-Grouse in the same administrative limbo as numerous other species, including the Red Knot. There are currently 249 candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In recent years, the candidate list seems to have become the most likely destination for endangered species petitions. It has some advantages as a designation in that the USFWS will coordinate voluntary conservation measures among federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private landowners. Its status will also be reviewed annually to monitor progress. The USFWS emphasizes these aspects in its press release. However, candidate species do not receive the full set of legal protections that endangered or threatened species receive. While the Greater Sage-Grouse will continue to receive protection from direct killings or nest destruction under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it will not benefit from the Endangered Species Act's habitat protections. The USFWS will also not be legally compelled create and implement a recovery plan, which leaves conservation measures subject to the goodwill of whatever administration is in office.

Speaking of administrations, the Center for Biological Diversity pointed out that the Obama administration has listed only two species under the Endangered Species Act so far. This is lower than the Bush administration's annual average of 8 species listed. Both administrations have shown a marked departure from endangered species policy under the previous two administrations, which listed annual averages of 65 and 58, respectively. While the current administration has made some initial progress in rolling back the worst attacks on the Endangered Species Act, it needs to do a better job of extending the law's protections to the species that need it.