Forcing the federal government’s hand to be more protective of imperiled species

September 4, 2020

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was written to protect and recover jeopardized species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. The ESA is worded to proceed on the side of caution, affording species protection over not. For that reason, Congress provided an additional avenue to expedite species’ listings by amending the Act to allow for citizen petitions to list.

Citizens can petition U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (commonly referred to as “the Services”) to list any unprotected species as threatened or endangered. Citizen groups generally have a more personal connection with the petitioned species as a result of geographical knowledge and recreational interests, therefore making them ideal advocates for at-risk species. The Services then have 90 days from receipt of a petition to determine whether listing “may be warranted” and have 12 months from receipt of a petition to make a final listing determination.

In response to an overwhelming number of species that need protection, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service created a Workplan that allows them to evaluate and prioritize listing decisions. Today, over 550 species are still awaiting listing determinations with the Workplan in place. Delays to list species are increasing, with the Service taking years to issue final listing determinations that are mandated to only take 12 months.

WildEarth Guardians initiated a lawsuit against the Service in order to have five Western River species listed. These species are still awaiting 12-month listing determinations and have been for four to seven years. Regardless of the Services’ exceedance of their statutory deadlines, citizen petitions play a valuable role in identifying at-risk species. The majority of species that have been listed or are awaiting ESA protections are a result of citizen petitions. WildEarth Guardians continues to fight for species’ protection and to force the Service’s hand to list.

Victoria Frankeny is a third-year law student at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. She interned with the legal team at WildEarth Guardians assisting in litigation and providing legal research.

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