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Reactions Mixed Over Interior Endangered Species Settlement

A pending settlement between the US Fish and Wildlife Service and conservationists could unclog a backlog of reviews of more than 250 potentially threatened or endangered species.  The deal announced Tuesday is being hailed by both sides.  But the oil and gas industry says it raises more questions than it answers.

The federal Endangered Species program has been guided by litigation, not science in recent years, according to Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, who briefed reporters on the proposed settlement via a conference call.

"Priorities are being set by plaintiffs in court instead of wildlife professionals," Hayes said.

Hayes said the Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the program, has been hit with hundreds of new citizen petitions to list species.  He added the agency spends all of its time handling those, when it could be studying whether to actually list the 251 so-called candidate species. 

The federal government has already determined those to be in peril but says it doesn’t have the resources to protect them.

"It’s clear that this status quo is not acceptable, not only for the service but for the hundreds of imperiled species that deserve the Service’s attention and resources," Hayes said.

It’s also clear that environmentalists appear to have given a little.  The group the government filed a settlement with in federal court, Wild Earth Guardians, has sued more than a dozen times when the Fish and Wildlife Service has missed deadlines for processing citizen petitions. 

"What we were doing was just adding species to the back of the waiting list, and so adding species number 252 to a list that has 251 things in front of it that are not moving is not that big of an accomplishment," said Jay Tutchton, general counsel at Wild Earth Guardians' Denver office.

Under the deal, his group agreed to drop its lawsuits and limit the number of petitions it files for new candidate species over the next six years, while the Fish and Wildlife Service focuses its attention on the existing 251 candidate species.

"We’ve wanted this list to move forever," Tutchton said. "All the litigation was to build pressure on this list." 

Among the most high profile on that list that could get another look is the greater sage grouse, which the Interior Department last year said warranted federal protections but was precluded by so-called higher priority species. 

Such a move has long been a concern to the oil and gas industry and for many local officials in energy-rich counties in northwest Colorado and Wyoming. 

"There’s been a tremendous amount of uncertainty, delay and expense, in trying to figure out how to work around ‘candidate’ status of greater sage grouse," said Kent Holsinger, a Denver-based public lands attorney who specializes in endangered species litigation.

Holsinger said Tuesday's announcement only adds to that uncertainty.  He also questioned whether the federal government has the authority to take another look at a species like the sage grouse via a brokered settlement – without first taking public comment. 

Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes did say the government would now commit to making a final listing decision on the sage grouse by 2015.  But he said that would provide time for all of the stakeholders to continue implementing conservation and habitat programs.

"Efforts that potentially could even preclude the need for a listing proposal in 2015," Hayes said.

A federal district court judge, meanwhile still needs to sign off on the broader deal. 

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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