WASHINGTON, Aug. 3, 2016 - The Fish and Wildlife Service has adopted a new methodology to determine which species should receive listing decisions first, and which should wait.

Lack of resources and a growing backlog of listing petitions prompted FWS to come up with the methodology, a draft of which was released in January.

“Our workload requires us to complete more than 500 status reviews and accompanying 12-month findings on those petitions,” the service said in the July 27 Federal Register. “At the same time, our resources to complete these findings are limited.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, FWS must respond to listing petitions within 90 days. If the service makes a positive finding, then it has nine months to conduct a status review and issue a 12-month finding that the species should be proposed for listing or does not warrant listing.

FWS said it is mindful of the deadlines in the ESA. “However, it is not possible, given (congressional) budget limitations  . . . and the immense backlog of 12-month findings to meet our statutory obligations under the (ESA) for 12-month findings.”

In order to prioritize status reviews, the service plans to put species in five “bins.” Quotes are from the service’s methodology:

  • Bin 1 (Highest priority – critically imperiled): “Highest priority will be given to a species experiencing severe threat levels across a majority of its range, resulting in severe population-level impacts.”

  • Bin 2 (Strong data already available): “Actions for which we have particularly strong scientific data supporting a clear decision on a species’ status – either a decision that the species likely warrants listing or likely does not warrant listing—at a higher priori.”

  • Bin 3 (New science underway to inform key uncertainties): For species where “uncertainty can be resolved within a reasonable timeframe because emerging science (e.g., taxonomy, genetics, threats) is underway to answer key questions that may influence the listing determination.”

  • Bin 4 (Conservation efforts in development or underway): “Where efforts to conserve species are organized, underway, and likely to address the threats to the species….  Conservation efforts should be at a scale that is relevant to the conservation of the species and likely to be able to influence the outcome of a listing determination.”

  • Bin 5 (Limited data currently available): “If we do not have much information about a species without conducting research or further analysis, the action would be suitably placed in this bin.”

Criticism from the environmental community was swift. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which has filed petitions to list hundreds of species and followed up with lawsuits to enforce ESA deadlines, said that the policy “will leave species vulnerable to extinction when limited information is available about them, or when conservation efforts or new science is underway but not completed.”

“This policy will create a purgatory where decisions are postponed but threats aren’t addressed,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the center. “Conservation agreements can take years to decades to develop, and the need for more study is a well-worn excuse that can always be used to delay protection decisions.”

CBD also said that putting species for which limited information is available at the bottom of the list will necessarily shortchange insects, plants and other lesser-known species.

“For example, 99 percent of mammals have been evaluated for extinction risk, but less than 1 percent of insects and less than 4 percent of plants have been evaluated.” CBD said. “Unpopular species, like mollusks and crayfish, will unfairly wait longer for protection because not as much is known about them, even though they are highly threatened.”

In comments on the draft methodology, the American Farm Bureau Federation said it was concerned that the service might “fast-track” species listings based on strength of data. But FWS said Bin 3 would apply equally “to situations where listing is likely warranted and where listing is likely not warranted.”

FWS spokesperson Brian Hires said that in the next month or two, FWS will release a seven-year work plan to address pending ESA listing decisions, using the new methodology to place species into the five bins.

The species awaiting final determinations are biologically diverse and widely distributed geographically, though many are in the Southwest and Southeast. CBD’s comments include a spreadsheet of species that need both petition findings and 12-month findings. (All comments on the draft methodology are contained in the regulatory docket.)


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