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Progress for Protection: Report on Historic Endangered Species Act Settlement Released
“The settlement has ended, but our work to ensure protections for threatened and endangered species is not done,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “Guardians is stalwart in our commitment to protecting and restoring our most imperiled wildlife, and we will continue to counteractions that weaken, attempt to prevent, or prematurely strip protections for at risk species.”
The 252“candidate” species at the center of the settlement are species that theService determined were “warranted” for protection under the ESA, but“precluded” by other priorities or lack of funding. Candidates have no legal protection under the ESA. By the time the settlement agreement was reached, some of the 252 candidates had already waited decades for protection, stuck behind a “listing logjam.” The settlement came after WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity brought numerous lawsuits against theService for failing to meet required deadlines under the ESA. The ESA does not allow the Service to make “warranted but precluded” findings if the agency is not making “expeditious progress” toward listing vulnerable species. Under theGeorge W. Bush administration, and early in the Obama administration, the agency was largely failing to safeguard imperiled species in a timely manner.
The settlement broke the listing logjam and as of Oct. 6, 2016, all the candidate species have a final decision. The settlement did not dictate what decision the Service would make about any species; it simply required a “yes” or “no” decision on listing so that the process could at last move forward. 160 species were listed as a result of the agreement, and 78 species were deemed “not warranted” or otherwise removed from the candidate list.
“Though we disagree with some of the decisions the Service made, we are glad that the process is working again,” said Jones. “Species are no longer stuck in regulatory purgatory and we can move forward in addressing the extinction crisis.”
The Service also agreed to undertake numerous additional actions, including making initial decisions, dubbed 90-day findings, on 505 petitioned species, 12-month findings for 100 species, final rules for 20 species, and critical habitat rules or revisions for 201 species. Altogether, the settlement required action of some kind on 1,074 species. In return, Guardians halted deadline lawsuits and agreed not to petition more than 10 species per year and not to sue over any more missed deadlines until the end of the settlement. Both the Service andGuardians met their obligations under the agreement. The Center for BiologicalDiversity reached a similar, though not identical settlement.
Under the settlement, 2,713,154.7 acres (4,239.3 square miles)—an area larger than Yellowstone National Park—and 6,380.4 stream and river miles were protected as habitat critical to the survival and recovery of species now protected under the law.
Along with the success of the settlement, the report highlights emerging threats to the Endangered Species Act, including policies of the Service itself and industry backed Congressional attacks on the law and funding for its implementation.
Protection under the ESA is an effective safety net for imperiled species: more than 99 percent of plants and animals protected by the law exist today. The law is especially important as a defense against the current extinction crisis; species are disappearing at a rate much higher than the natural rate of extinction due to human activities. Scientists estimate that 227 species would have gone extinct by 2006 if not for ESA protections.
Examples of Species Listed Due to theSettlement Agreement
The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse
This small mammal is a jumping powerhouse; it can leap 10 times the length of its body. The jumping mouse’s large back feet may assist it with swimming as well as jumping. It is a water-loving animal, living only along the banks of southwestern streams. It has one of the longest hibernation periods of any mammal, sleeping through up to 10 months of the year. Guardians petitioned the Service to list the jumping mouse in 2008, and it received a final listing as “endangered” in 2014. Protecting the jumping mouse means protecting healthy streams in the arid southwest from overgrazing, dewatering, and trampling by cattle.
The Gunnison sage grouse
These rare dancing birds are American’s most recently discovered avian species: Gunnison sage grouse were not recognized as a distinct species until 2000. They are distinguished from their close cousin, the greater sage grouse, by white bars on their tails and a dense “ponytail” of fine, hair-like feathers on the backs of their heads. Their unique mating display is an iconic springtime ritual of the sagebrush steppe. A coalition of groups petitioned to list Gunnison sage grouse in 2000; in 2014, it was listed as “threatened.” Keeping oil and gas in the ground will be crucial for these birds, since they are displaced from ancestral mating grounds (leks) by drilling and development.
The Jemez Mountains salamander
The small brown and gold Jemez Mountains salamander is shy and rarely seen. This secretive amphibian lives in fragmented populations in its namesake mountains near New Mexico’s Valles Caldera NationalPreserve. Guardians petitioned the salamander for listing in 2008, and it was listed as“endangered” in 2013. Protections for the JemezMountains salamander safeguard the Jemez Mountains, preserving large tracts of undisturbed wilderness with vistas of rocky peaks and mountain streams, and unique features such as hot springs, fumaroles, and the Valles Caldera itself, a ring of hills formed from the remnants of several extinct volcanoes.
The yellow-billed cuckoo
Western yellow-billed cuckoos nest exclusively in streamside stands of cottonwood and willow, and spend winters in South America. The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned this species for listing in 1998, and the Service concluded that populations west of the Continental Divide made up a Distinct PopulationSegment (a discrete and significant population) that deserved legal protections. In 2014, the yellow-billed cuckoo was finally listed as“threatened” after 13 years on the candidate list.