WASHINGTON — Hundreds of plant and animal species threatened with extinction may die off before the government takes steps to offer them special protection, conservationists said Monday.
Defenders of Wildlife blamed the problem on the shortage of money and personnel in government agencies that evaluate threatened species and determine what steps are needed to preserve them.
"Over 3,900 candidate species await listing decisions," said Joyce Kelly, president of the wildlife group. "Nearly 300 may already have become extinct before ever receiving legal protection."
'Picture Getting Bleaker'
"Overall, the picture is getting bleaker," said Ginger Merchant Meese, the group's endangered species specialist. "It is probably safe to say the number of candidates for listing is increasing."
A spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which maintains the government's endangered species list, said the agency is making progress and "doing the best job that we can, considering the budget and the manpower restraints that we have to live under."
"What it boils down to is: 'Can you ever do enough?' " he said. "We'd like to do more, certainly, but the fact is we live within a budget set by Congress."
In its new report, "Saving Endangered Species," Defenders of Wildlife said that over the last two years, the Palos Verdes blue butterfly became the "first verified avoidable extinction since 1973 of a listed American species at the hands of human beings."
Other species, including the California condor and black-footed ferret, have declined to critically low levels, the report said.
"Over 30 more are in similar straits or are possibly extinct, while readily available, inexpensive recovery steps have not been taken," the document said.