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Los Angeles Times
April 19, 2003

Going Backwards

Bush Weighs Endangered Species Delay

by Elizabeth Shogren

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.

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.

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.