In a surprising collaboration, the Bush administration and some of the nation's most litigious environmentalists announced an agreement Wednesday to expedite protection of 29 of the most imperiled plants and animals around the country.
Including rare mammals, birds, fish, snails and butterflies, the species' homes range from the Pacific Northwest to south Florida, some of them in areas where such protection has sparked bitter battles.
The pact startled some conservationists and development groups since it was drawn up by parties who normally meet in courtrooms, not at a negotiating table.
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, who announced the pact, has been viewed with suspicion by environmentalists who believe she supports efforts by property-rights groups and industry to weaken the Endangered Species Act. By contrast, the four environmental groups who helped craft the pact have repeatedly sued to force the federal government to enforce the act.
Administration officials hailed the fact that often-warring factions were able to agree upon species most in need of help.
"I am pleased that we have been able to cooperate and find common ground that will allow us to protect these species under the Endangered Species Act," Norton said in a statement. "I hope this can be a model for future agreements."
Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups involved in the agreement, called it a model, adding: "With so many plants and animals on the brink of extinction, it is imperative that environmental groups and the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service work together to bring them back."
The other groups are the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, the California Native Plant Society and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation.
Some think the agreement could represent a new direction for Washington officials and environmental groups.
"It seems to me to mark the beginning of what we've needed for a long time, which is a serious dialogue among all the parties involved in endangered species protection about what our priorities should be," said David S. Wilcove, senior ecologist at the group Environmental Defense and a well-known endangered species expert.
At the heart of the deal is an agreement by the environmentalists to delay demands that the federal government meet certain legal requirements of the act. That will free up $588,000, so federal biologists can focus on saving the most imperiled species amid a mammoth backlog caused in part by a blizzard of lawsuits, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman said.
Under the agreement, three species may be rushed onto the endangered species list:
* In Washington state, the Columbia Basin population of pygmy rabbits has plummeted to fewer than 50 such rabbits, threatened by lost habitat, disease and predators.
* In Missouri, the Tumbling Creek cavesnail lives in a single cave, its numbers dropping 82% from 1973 to 1995, an apparent victim of worsening water quality.
* In California and Nevada, the butterfly called the California wandering skipper has shrunk to only two small populations, its habitat damaged by agriculture, livestock grazing and development.
The agreement calls for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether to place 14 more species on the endangered species list and whether to propose eight more for listing. Environmentalists said they are confident those species are so threatened that they will gain protection under the Endangered Species Act.
"This is really God's waiting room for species. We're talking about species imperiled at the brink of extinction," said Susan Holmes, endangered species policy expert for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.
Stephanie Hanna, a spokesman for Norton, said the agreement reflects Norton's hope "that through this consultive process, we can proceed with the biological priorities set by the court. She believes that the Fish and Wildlife Service is a better biological tool than a courtroom for trying to protect species."
Hanna added, "When you take the conflict out of one of the more conflictive relationships Interior has had, even for the short term, it has to be viewed as a possible model for the future."
She was referring to the long history of suits brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, the best-known of the four environmental groups involved in the pact. The center has filed 75 lawsuits to try to force listing, winning 59 and losing only one.
The 29 species became part of the talks because they had high-priority status at the agency, said Patrick Leonard, chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service's listing branch in Washington.
The Clinton administration in November announced it would not list any new plants or animals because of insufficient funding.
Even the pact's biggest advocates acknowledged that it does not solve the long-term problem of finding federal money for the expensive process of assessing and listing species.