ESA reform


Well-Known Member
Bull trout habitat plan suspended

By Jim Mann
The Daily Inter Lake

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials announced last week the agency has no more money for critical habitat designations, icing a sweeping review of bull trout habitat in the Northwest.
Last fall, the agency proposed critical habitat designations covering a total of 18,468 stream miles and 537,722 lake acres in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Public comments were collected and were under review as money for the project gradually dwindled.

"We basically are not working on it for the moment, for bull trout anyway," said Jeri Wood, the agency's bull trout recovery plan coordinator. "That's pretty much it. We're out of money."

Most recently, open houses were held across the region for the public to get information and provide comments on designations for bull trout.

Wood said critical habitat work for bull trout will probably resume in the next fiscal year, with the continuation of an economic study, followed by another round of public comments.

Top officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service said last week that this year's money for critical habitat work has been exhausted across the country.

Congress provided $6 million to designate critical habitat for listed species, nearly two-thirds of the $9.077 million budget for the agency's entire endangered species listing program.

The service estimates the total cost of complying with court orders and court-approved agreements involving critical habitat to be about $8 million this year.

Agency officials are frustrated with the time-consuming designations, which have been required largely because of lawsuits filed by environmental groups. Going back to the Clinton administration, agency officials have protested the designations, saying they provide little practical conservation benefit to listed species.

By 1997, the service had designated critical habitat for only a handful of more than 1,200 species on the threatened and endangered lists. The agency determined that most designations were "not prudent."

But that year, a court ruled the "not prudent" standard violated the Endangered Species Act.

There has been a flood of lawsuits since then. The agency currently faces court-ordered deadlines dealing with 32 species.

Craig Manson, assistant secretary of Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, had strong words about the situation.

"The Endangered Species Act is broken," Manson pronounced last week. "This flood of litigation over critical habitat designation is preventing the Fish and Wildlife Service from protecting new species and reducing its ability to recover plants and animals already listed as threatened or endangered.

"Imagine an emergency room where lawsuits force the doctors to treat sprained ankles while patients with heart attacks expire in the waiting room and you've got a good picture of our endangered species program right now."

The government, Manson said, needs "to make decisions about how to use our limited resources based on the most urgent needs of species, not on who can get into a courtroom first."

Other critics charge the habitat designations serve as an another legal hammer for environmental groups to steer management of listed species.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., issued a statement saying environmental groups have litigated the critical habitat program to death, harming the intent of the Endangered Species Act.

"Fortunately, stubborn facts, science and technology show us that critical habitat designations are ineffective in recovering endangered species," said Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee.

"At present, this law is bankrupt, literally as well as in species recovery," he said. "It will remain broken as long as radical groups use it to preserve themselves instead of species."

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, issued a statement saying Congress needs "to take the lead in reforming the ESA, and transform a system that, while well intentioned, is proving to be self defeating in implementation."

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also is also frustrated with the program.

"I'm concerned the critical wildlife habitat program is eating up so much of the Fish and Wildlife Services resources," Baucus said this week. "We must ensure they have the resources they need to protect wildlife, work with private landowners, and meet the long-term goal of the act, which is to recover endangered and threatened species and eventually take them off the list."

Environmental groups contend the designations are necessary for the government and the public to be aware of the most important habitat for listed species.

Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan spoke in defense of the designations early this year.

"We regard critical habitat as a companion to recovery of bull trout," Montgomery said. "It helps the land management agencies know and understand these are the places that are really important to protect or restore habitat, because these are the places that will lead to recovery."

Friends of the Wild Swan was a lead plaintiff in litigation that compelled the Fish and Wildlife Service to pursue critical habitat designations for bull trout.