ESA stuck in court

In an unexpected display of reasonability, four environmental groups that have plagued the Clinton and Bush administrations alike reached a deal with President George W. Bush last week to give protection of endangered species priority over their unending stream of lawsuits. The president, through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, promised to promptly consider 29 species for the endangered species list. In return, the environmental groups agreed to delay their latest legal demands against the government. The irony of this agreement is that the last 10 years of lawsuits demanding ever-faster enforcement of the Endangered Species Act has been one of the primary impediments to listing species in the first place.

Under the ESA, the FWS must prepare detailed maps of each endangered species’ habitat. The process is time-consuming and expensive, but since the 1990s, environmental groups have barraged the government with lawsuits demanding the FWS produce the maps immediately after listing a species, regardless of whether scientists have enough information to create the maps accurately. The groups also file suits to have species considered for addition to the list.

“For too long we’ve been spending precious resources on paying lawyers bills, fighting in court,” Interior Secretary Gale Norton told The Wall Street Journal in April, “instead of protecting species, fighting to bring them back from the brink of extinction.”

The ringleader in these lawsuits, the Center for Biological Diversity, has alone filed 75 lawsuits against the FWS. The Interior Department is fighting nearly 80 endangered species suits and has received notice of 95 more. These lawsuits affect about 1,000 species and are so damaging to the FWS’s species preservation efforts that Bruce Babbitt, interior secretary under Bill Clinton, wrote a column in April for The New York Times defending Bush’s appeal to Congress for legislation protecting key parts of the FWS budget from the financial drain of fighting lawsuits.

Indeed, by last November the agency had lost so much time and money in court that Clinton announced the government lacked the resources to list any new species. But the lawsuits harm more than the FWS’s budget. Because courts usually grant environmentalists’ demands for immediate mapping, Babbitt writes, the FWS is forced to take scientists and money away from projects such as evaluating candidates for the endangered species list and designing protections for species that don’t qualify for the list. The FWS has a backlog of almost 250 species still waiting to be evaluated, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the current deal will free up $588,000 and the agency’s best scientists for work on actually preserving endangered species. One hopes the “environmentalists” can grasp the cause-and-effect relationship.