Endangered Species Act changes would send many plants and animals towards oblivion

A lynx in the wilds of Colorado. Photo courtesy Tanya Shenk, Colorado Division of Wildlife.
A lynx in the wilds of Colorado. Photo courtesy Tanya Shenk, Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Huge coalition sends letter to President Obama criticizing proposed new petitioning rules

Staff Report

A federal plan to tweak the Endangered Species Act isn’t getting much love from conservation advocates, who say the changes would make it much harder to start the listing process.

To reinforce their concerns, 175 environmental and social justice organizations sent a letter to the Obama administration, detailing what they call “massive roadblocks” to needed protection for many species.“Most animals protected under the Endangered Species Act today are there because ordinary citizens petitioned to make it happen,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy coordinator at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These pro-industry rules will discourage that public participation, increase frivolous litigation, and prevent many of our most imperiled species from getting the protection they need to survive,” Hartl said, referring to the proposed changes.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the changes would“reflect advances in conservation biology and genetics, as well as recent court decisions interpreting the Act’s provisions.”

The proposed regulations would require petitioners to provide 30 days advance notice of the petition to all states in the range of the species; to append all information provided by states to the petition before it is filed; and to legally certify that all relevant information has been provided in the petition.

Collectively the regulations shift the entire burden of information collection and analysis onto ordinary citizens, which will discourage petitions and allow more species to slip through the cracks on the way to extinction.

The groups’ letter lays out the far-reaching implications of the proposed regulations, stating: “There would be an enormous chilling effect on citizens’ fundamental right to petition their government if other federal agencies emulate the rules the Services are proposing here. State governments have enormous power compared to a citizen petitioner, and could quickly assemble thousands of pages of material that is intended to undermine and muddle the issues that a petition presents.”

The Endangered Species Act expressly provides citizens with the right to petition for protection of species, and a majority of the 1,500 species protected by the Act were the result of citizen petitions.

The filing of a petition triggers what is supposed to be a two-year process, and includes three public comment periods. Despite these clear time limits, most species wait more than a decade to receive protection. These delays have had real consequences: More than 40 species having gone extinct waiting for Endangered Species Act protection.

“This foolish proposal is the exact opposite of what’s needed to get plants and animals timely protection under the Endangered Species Act,” said Hartl. “Hundreds of species still desperately need this safety net, yet this proposal makes it much more likely that species will go extinct due to pointless bureaucratic restrictions.”

The requirement to send an advance copy of the petition to state governments is unprecedented in the history of citizen petitions. In 1946 Congress established uniform, government-wide standards regarding the rights of citizens to file petitions and standards for the government to respond to those petitions.

Prior to this proposal, no federal agency has ever required that ordinary citizens effectively give state governments the ability to provide a rebuttal to a petition request prior to its official filing with that agency. If similar requirements were adopted by other federal agencies, citizen petitions to strengthen air quality, protect clean water, address worker safety and protect human health would almost never succeed.

“In their drive to appease special interests that hate endangered species, the Obama administration is recklessly throwing under the bus the rights of ordinary people to participate in their government,” said Hartl. “Endangered species, clean water and our own health are under so many growing threats that we need the unrestricted power of citizen petitions now  more than ever.”

This regulatory proposal is one of several policies put forward by the administration in the past three years seeking to limit the scope of the Endangered Species Act, solidifying the administration’s reputation as no friend of wildlife or the environment.

Other administration policies seek to limit protections for endangered species critical habitat; restrict which species get protection in the first place; and give federal agencies carte blanche to ignore the harm to endangered species that occur from the cumulative impacts of multiple agency actions.

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