WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is considering asking the courts for more time to protect 24 endangered species, a strategy that has outraged some environmental groups.
An internal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service document obtained by The Times lists 24 court-ordered actions -- either proposing or designating critical habitats -- that the agency does not expect it will complete by deadlines this fall. It is considering requesting extensions from the courts.
In designated critical habitats, the government must consider the endangered species' needs before deciding to permit development. Developers, loggers and other groups have long complained that government regulations unreasonably hamper their projects.
Some environmentalists say the administration's tentative plan to seek more time to comply with the 24 court orders amounts to an attempt to avoid having to curtail commercial activity on essential land for species' survival.
It is no coincidence, they say, that the Fish and Wildlife Service's list includes many of the most controversial habitat designations, some of which have already been litigated several times.
"That shows a blatant disregard for the judiciary," said Bill Snape, legal director for Defenders of Wildlife, a national environmental group.
Species on the list, which is not final, include the Canada lynx (which lives in the northern tier of states), the bull trout (the Pacific Northwest, extending to Northern California) and the southwestern willow flycatcher (California and six other states). Many of the other species also live in California.
Officials in the Interior Department, the bureaucratic home of the Fish and Wildlife Service, say the list merely reflects the agency's inadequate budget. And they have the sympathy of Jamie Clark, who directed the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Clinton administration.
"The fact that they're asking for extensions is not a surprise at all to me," said Clark, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. "I am sure that they're financially strapped."
Clark agreed with Bush administration officials that the problem stemmed from excessive litigation over critical habitat designations. Like Bush officials, she complained that endless lawsuits required government biologists to spend too much time designating critical habitat for the species -- a complicated and expensive process -- and too little time listing new species.
The Bush administration argues that the critical habitat designations are a waste of time because other parts of the Endangered Species Act adequately protect the species and their habitats.
"It sucks up a lot of government resources, causes a lot of social angst and economic upheaval," said Craig Manson, assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. "But in terms of real conservation benefit, it's just about nil."
The court orders take up so much time and money, he said, that federal biologists have no time to focus on listing species that they believe most need protection.
"As of today, we have no capacity to carry out any discretionary actions because ... [the] budget is committed to court orders through fiscal 2008," Manson said.
Some environmental activists charge that Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton created the budgetary crisis by failing to request adequate funds from Congress to do the work the courts had ordered.
"She engineered it; she wants a budget crisis," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which is responsible for many of the environmental lawsuits. "Look at the species involved: These are very, very important species whose habitat protection would have the greatest impact on industry -- that's why Bush has singled them out."
Many of the species on the Bush administration's tentative list have storied legal histories.
For the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1997 designated 599 miles of stream and river beds across California and six other states as critical habitat in response to a court order resulting from a lawsuit filed by an environmental group.
The New Mexico Cattle Growers Assn. sued the government, complaining that fencing erected to protect the habitat of the petite bird was making it difficult for their cattle to get to water and grazing land, thus forcing ranchers to decrease their herds.
The association won the lawsuit two years ago, and the agency was ordered to withdraw the critical habitat designation while it was reconsidered. The Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to propose a new habitat designation, and the flycatcher was on the list of species being considered for seeking court extensions.
The National Home Builders Assn. filed a similar lawsuit contesting the critical habitat designated in the Tucson area to protect the pygmy owl. Rather than waiting for a judge to rule, the Bush administration agreed with the builders' complaint, withdrew the critical habitat designation and Fish and Wildlife began developing a new plan.
The new proposal, to designate 1.2 million acres of private and public land for critical habitat, was completed in November but the designation process is not complete. It is among the cases for which the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering requesting more time.