BILLINGS, Mont. – A federal judge was asked Tuesday to approve a pair of deals between the Obama administration and wildlife advocates that would require the government to consider greater protections for hundreds of imperiled animals and plants.
Federal officials signed the latest of the two agreements earlier in the day with the Center for Biological Diversity. A similar deal encompassing many of the same species was reached in May with a second group, WildEarth Guardians.
Those agreements went before U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, D.C.
If he signs off, the government would face a series of deadlines between now and 2018 to decide if greater protections are needed for species as diverse as the Northern wolverine, Pacific walrus and Miami blue butterfly.
The deals came as the government's endangered species program is under fire on Capitol Hill. House Republicans have submitted a proposed budget for the Interior Department that would bar listing any new species under the Endangered Species Act.
The Safari Club is seeking to intervene in the federal court case. Its attorneys said in court filings that the hunting group wants to preserve the rights of its members to hunt animals, including greater sage grouse and the New England cottontail rabbit, which were covered under the agreements.
Sullivan has not ruled on the group's request.
Some plants and animals covered under the administration's agreements were first proposed for protection soon after the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Instead, they languished for decades on a list of candidate species the government could not afford to help.
The combined agreements cover more than 250 of those candidate species and hundreds of others for which legal petitions seeking protections have been filed.
"We're dealing with the ultimate stakes of life and death with this settlement," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "We know 24 species have already gone extinct while waiting to be put on the endangered list. If these (species) had to wait much longer, many of those would go extinct as well."
Government officials said the backlog has been made worse by lawsuits and legal petitions that distract the Fish and Wildlife Service from needed scientific reviews and restoration work. Those legal actions have consumed money and staff time that could be spent on programs such as developing restoration plans for struggling plants and animals, officials said.
The deals signed by WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity required the groups to limit their future legal actions against the government.
"This work plan will allow the service to more effectively focus our efforts on providing the benefits of the ESA to those imperiled species most in need of protection," Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said.
For candidate species, the government over the next six years would review their populations and determine if they should be added to the endangered species list.
Species subject to the petitioning process would be reviewed for determinations on whether they warrant protection. Those determinations are among the first steps taken before listing a plant or animal as in danger of extinction, said Vanessa Kauffman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Center for Biological Diversity initially opposed the WildEarth Guardians deal, claiming it was weak and unenforceable. The group said Tuesday it was withdrawing that opposition.
Nicole Rosmarino with WildEarth Guardians said she hoped Tuesday's deal would allow all the parties involved in the case to move forward and begin addressing the backlog of imperiled species.
"The Endangered Species Act is our nation's key environmental law but it does not help species until they are actually listed," Rosmarino said.