Greens’ massive lawsuit aims to force FWS deadline deal

Source: Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Center for Biological Diversity today threatened legal action against the Fish and Wildlife Service to jump-start the stalled Endangered Species Act status reviews of 417 imperiled species — a move that could set the stage for another major legal settlement between the conservation group and the agency.

The species listed in the notice of intent to sue were all flagged for ESA protection by CBD and other nonprofits over the past eight years. They include coastal flatwoods crayfish, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, panhandle lilies and hundreds of other species.

After 90-day reviews, FWS found that all of the conservation groups’ ESA petitions presented “substantial scientific or commercial information” that the animals or plants should be added to the endangered or threatened species lists. But the agency then failed to complete more rigorous 12-month reviews of the imperiled species to determine whether listing is not warranted, warranted or warranted but precluded by other priorities.

“You are in violation of the law and have abrogated your duty to ensure that protection of endangered species occurs in a timely manner thereby avoiding further decline and increased risk of extinction,” CBD said in today’s notice.

The notice calls for FWS to “make the required 12-month findings for these 417 species or contact us to develop a legally binding timeline for making these findings within the next sixty days.” It was sent to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell; FWS Director Dan Ashe; and Gary Frazer, the service’s assistant director for endangered species.

The legal maneuver comes as CBD, WildEarth Guardians and FWS are reaching the end of a pair of landmark settlements that set listing decision deadlines over six years for 251 species that the agency had determined warranted ESA protection but were not high priorities for listing. Those “sue and settle” deals, as conservative critics have described them, also limited the number of lawsuits that the conservation groups could file against FWS (E&ENews PM, Sept. 9, 2011).

CBD argues that its latest litigation threat is needed both to protect the species included in the notice and to force the agency to reconsider its listing process.

“Delayed protection can be deadly for species already on the brink of extinction,” said Noah Greenwald, the group’s endangered species director. “The service needs a systematic plan with binding commitments to consider protection of all U.S. plants and animals that may warrant protection. The list may be long, but it’s not infinite — this is a problem that could be tackled with sufficient resources and political will.”

FWS declined to comment.