WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2016 - Recent regulatory changes to the Endangered Species Act provide needed reforms that will help curb “rampant abuse” of the listing petition process, according to ranchers.
Not so, says one of the environmental groups that has submitted petitions and filed lawsuits that have forced the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) – and, to a far lesser extent, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) – to make listing decisions on hundreds of species.
The changes are “nothing more than a gift to industries and right-wing states that are hostile to endangered species,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These rules make it harder to get imperiled species the (ESA) protections they desperately need, and they do nothing to address the backlog of hundreds of imperiled species that are still waiting to get the protections they deserve.”
In a rule published Sept. 27, FWS and NMFS are requiring petitioners to notify affected states 30 days before they plan to file a petition. The services also said they would no longer consider petitions that address multiple species. Instead, each petition will have a one-species limit.
That was music to the ears of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Public Lands Council, which said they had been pushing for similar changes for years.
“Limiting petitions to one species at a time will provide some desperately needed focus, and notification to the states affected in a timely manner – even if only 30 days – is progress toward increasing local input into the process,” said Ethan Lane, NCBA federal lands and PLC executive director. “Serious groups from across the spectrum that are engaged in true conservation will applaud these changes.”
Hartl, however, said the rule is designed “to intimidate ordinary citizens by making it more cumbersome for them to seek protection of our imperiled plants and animals.”
The services said in the rule, “We value the input and expertise of our state partners and wish to provide them the opportunity to be aware that species in their states are the subject of petitions and to provide pertinent information on those species.”
They also said that “multispecies petitions have often generalized or referenced information across species, which significantly complicates the evaluation process, because it is unclear which references apply to which species.”
The new requirements are a far cry from those originally proposed in 2015, one of which would have forced petitioners to send their petition to affected states, gather the state input, and then include any information received in the final petition. The proposal also would have required that each petition include “all relevant information” on the species in question, “a requirement that would be virtually impossible to meet, and could cost a petitioner thousands of dollars to comply with,” dozens of environmental groups said in a comment letter to the agencies.
FWS and NMFS issued another proposal earlier this year that eased off on the state requirement and proposed that instead of requiring that each petition contain “all relevant data,” it instead should include a “detailed narrative justification for the recommended administrative action that contains an analysis of the information presented.” FWS and NMFS also recommended that petitions provide a “complete, balanced representation of the relevant facts, including information that may contradict claims in the petition.”
Indeed, the Center for Biological Diversity’s comments on the re-proposed rule were much more positive than its subsequent press release. For example, the new 30-day state notification requirement “does, for the most part, minimize the potential burdens on petitioners and could provide a slight improvement in the overall quality of petitions, as well as slight improvement in the accuracy and completeness of 90-day findings and 12-month status reviews,” CBD said in its comment letter.
The new rule is the latest attempt by the Obama administration to address issues with ESA implementation. Also in September, FWS released a listing “workplan” that sets a schedule for deciding on listing and critical habitat decisions for 362 high-priority species, including 30 that are already candidate species, meaning that FWS has enough information to propose them for listing, but has not been able to because of lack of resources or because it needs to address a higher-priority species first.
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