Friday, October 10, 2008

Western group petitions for species protection

A tortoise, a hare, a mouse and a half-dozen mussels.

These are just some of the animals and plants that a Western conservation group is seeking protections for under the Endangered Species Act as part of several in-depth petitions filed Thursday with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

WildEarth Guardians said the petitions—filed as part of its "Western Ark" project to gain protections for more species in the region—cover a diverse group of 13 plants and animals with ranges that span more than a dozen states and stretch into Mexico and Canada.

"We deliberately wanted to petition at once for a variety of plants and animals and this is to underscore that the Endangered Species Act really is like Noah's ark," said Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. "We want as many species that are in need to board the ark as possible."

Elizabeth Slown, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, said officials will look over the petition to "see whether there is enough information and substantial argument for us to pursue determining whether these plants and animals should be under endangered species protection."

WildEarth Guardians reviewed the status of hundreds of species—including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates—looking for those that had the best cases for protection under the federal act.

"We really wanted a wide range just to demonstrate to the government and the public that that's what this law is all about," Rosmarino said. "The Endangered Species Act is all about protecting the rich tapestry of life."

The eight petitions filed Thursday are the latest salvo in the battle the group has been waging against the federal government over endangered species listings. WildEarth Guardians points out that the polar bear was the first U.S. species to be listed in over two years and that all of the listings under the Bush administration have been prompted by either citizen petitions or legal action.

WildEarth Guardians in the past year has petitioned for protections for hundreds of species, including prairie wildflowers, butterflies, amphibians, fishes, snails, trees and cactus.

The Fish and Wildlife Service vowed at the beginning of this year to make a dent in the backlog of species needing to be reviewed for possible ESA protection. In a step toward that goal, the agency announced last month it was taking a new, ecosystem-based approach to the endangered species list and proposing an all-at-once addition of 48 Hawaiian species to list.

Asked whether this new approach would help with petitions such as those filed by WildEarth Guardians, Rosmarino said the approach makes sense and is long overdue but the administration still has a lot of catching up to do.

She added that her group will keep plugging away with petitions and legal pressure.

"If nothing else, we're going to greet the next administration with a long line of passengers that urgently need to board the ark that the Endangered Species Act provides," she said.

Nearly all the species listed in the petitions filed Thursday face a common threat of climate change, including the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, the Jemez Mountains salamander, the white-sided jackrabbit and the Sonoran desert tortoise.

The tortoise, which ranges across southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, is the focus of one petition filed jointly by WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project. The groups say the tortoise's population has been reduced by more than half since 1987, and that urban sprawl, off-roading and grazing continue to put pressure on the species.

In addition, long droughts brought on by climate change are expected to result in less food and lower reproduction rates for the tortoise, the groups say.

Rosmarino said drought is also likely to have an impact on the white-sided jackrabbit's grassland habitat.

Without federal protection, Rosmarino said conservationists worry that the tortoise and the jackrabbit—like the other species listed in the petitions—might be lost.

She quipped that the tortoise and the hare are not racing each other but are "in a race with extinction and neither of them has an interest in winning that race."

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