The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that it has stopped putting new species on its endangered and threatened list for fiscal 2001 except in rare emergencies, complaining that a flood of lawsuits seeking critical habitat is exhausting its budget and overtaxing its staff.
"The bottom line is, we're being sued left and right by environmental groups," said Hugh Vickery, an agency spokesman. "We are just overwhelmed trying to identify critical habitats. So we simply have no staff or money to do the listings."
In recent months, fish and wildlife officials, under orders from federal judges, have grudgingly designated huge swaths of land across California as critical habitat for the tiny coastal California gnatcatcher bird, the tidewater goby fish, the Southwestern arroyo toad, the Riverside fairy shrimp, and other endangered or threatened species. Critical habitat is land considered crucial to the survival of an imperiled species.
The new policy, outlined in a memo, is in effect for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Federal officials have argued unsuccessfully in more than a dozen lawsuits that critical habitat is an unnecessary added protection for species already classified as endangered or threatened.
The latest move was first disclosed to regional offices in an internal memo last week. Species already under consideration may be listed if leftover funds from this year can be found, the memo says.
The declaration met with swift, sharp criticism from leading environmental groups, who said it would only force them to swamp the agency with more costly and time-consuming litigation.
"What the agency is doing is a gross violation of environmental law and a broken promise to America's endangered wildlife," said David Hogan, urban wild lands coordinator for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
Hogan said if the service is allowed to follow through with the moratorium, species will be at risk of extinction, including the California spotted owl, Yosemite toad and the mountain yellow-legged frog of the Sierra Nevada.
"What we're seeing here is a pattern in practice by the agency of subverting the Endangered Species Act," he said.
Under the Endangered Species Act, federal officials must make a final ruling within a year of receiving a petition on whether to list a species as threatened or endangered. But Vickery said that the service is legally allowed to "prioritize," based on availability of resources and that it must now focus on complying with court orders and settlements to create critical habitat.
"This decision was forced upon us," he said.
Environmentalists said that was ludicrous, noting that the service has spent millions fighting repeated and losing court battles against critical habitat.
"It's completely disingenuous to now blame litigation costs for budgetary problems, which are of their own making," said Andrew Wetzler, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Wetzler and Hogan also noted that the service had declined to ask Congress for increased funds for critical habitat and in fact had asked for a cap on such money.
But Vickery said the service asked Congress for $7.2 million to meet the demand for listing species and creating habitats in fiscal year 2001, but got $6.5 million, about $300,000 more than was granted the previous year.
Vickery could not provide details on the amount of money the service has devoted to paying Justice Department lawyers to litigate the critical habitat cases, nor the size of the staff trying to keep up with the logjam.
Hogan's center is credited with filing the first lawsuit seeking critical habitat for endangered species, winning habitat in 1997 for the Southwestern willow flycatcher, one of the most endangered songbirds in North America with fewer than 100 pairs left, Hogan said.
Since then, in the Pacific region alone, courts have ordered habitat designations for 282 species in response to environmental lawsuits.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the Fish and Wildlife Service have long complained that critical habitat designations are costly efforts that provide little if any extra protection to species already listed as endangered or threatened.
Bulldozing or other potentially harmful activities on federally regulated land designated as critical habitat must be specially approved. The designations have infuriated environmentalists and developers alike.