LOS ANGELES — Environmental groups are offering a deal they hope federal officials can’t refuse: Some relief from lawsuits in exchange for quickly getting species declared endangered.
Members of two groups well-known for filing lawsuits to protect declining species — the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife — said their offer would break through a moratorium on listings to protect some of the nation’s most imperiled animals and plants.
But they added that a deal would be only a stopgap. In a report released Wednesday, the groups also called on President Bush to increase funding for endangered species and scrap a proposal that would weaken protections.
“There are species out there that could literally be extinct in a month or two,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Tucson, Ariz.-based center. For example, he said, the Mississippi gopher frog’s habitat has shrunk to a single pond that itself is shrinking; National Guard units have been pumping water to keep the species alive.
The groups are offering to allow what effectively would be extensions of court-ordered deadlines for Fish and Wildlife to establish critical habitat for endangered plants and animals. Suckling said the groups may allow reprieves of six months or a year. He wouldn’t say which species are being offered up for delays.
With the money Fish and Wildlife wouldn’t have to spend complying with court orders, the agency would list some of the most imperiled animals and plants, possibly including the gopher frog, the Aleutian sea otter and the Miami blue butterfly.
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Hugh Vickery said a deal would free up much-needed funding. “We’re desperate to try to get species on the list,” Vickery said, especially 37 species already proposed for listing.
Fish and Wildlife banned almost all new listings in November. This month it added one species to the list – the Ventura marsh milkvetch – because most of the work had already been completed. A court order will require the agency to add another species, the yellow billed cuckoo, in July, Vickery said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which declared the white abalone an endangered species Tuesday, does not have a moratorium on listings.
Vickery said money is tight because environmentalists have been “clogging the works” with lawsuits demanding critical habitat for listed species. When the government declares an area to be critical habitat for a species, Fish and Wildlife biologists must be consulted for any work requiring federal approval.
Wednesday’s report said the problem is not too many lawsuits, but too little money. Scientist Jane Goodall, actors and seven environmental groups unveiled the report at a press conference where they called on Bush to expand funding and to abandon a proposal that would restrict the public’s ability to sue for more species protections.
The world’s species “are like rivets in an airplane, and how many rivets can we lose in the airplane that holds all of us aloft?” actor Ed Begley Jr. asked.
The Bush administration has proposed increasing Fish and Wildlife’s budget for endangered species by $2 million to $8.5 million, but that remains well short of the $120 million the agency says it needs to clear out a backlog of listings.
Environmental groups propose eliminating the backlog by spending $24 million a year for five years.