Group Challenges Feds Over Troubled Species
By Susan Montoya Bryan
In a few hideouts around the Southwest, the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse has a precarious foothold on survival. With its large hind feet and long tail, it can jump up to three feet high and swim to avoid predators, but it still faces other threats that could eventually lead to its extinction.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that the mouse — found in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado — deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act, but a listing proposal has languished because the agency is busy with other activities.
That doesn't sit well with WildEarth Guardians.
The group on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit in Tucson, Ariz., challenging a loophole in the Endangered Species Act that allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to delay listing a species if it has higher priorities.
The problem, the group says, is the Southwest region hasn't listed a high priority species in years.
Nicole Rosmarino, the group's wildlife program director, said she hopes the mouse's case changes the way the agency does business since its endangered species listing program has become painfully slow at the national level and has ground to a halt in the Southwest region.
"We do not think the agency can use the 'warranted but precluded' loophole until it demonstrates that it is listing high priority species and is making expeditious progress," she said. "At this point, it cannot convincingly argue either point so we hope to have a positive ruling, not only for the jumping mouse but also to speak to this larger national issue."
In its defense, the agency says it can only do so much with the funding and staff that it has.
"I can't really comment on their arguments or on the basis of their lawsuit, but I can say that we have many, many species that are certainly deserving of attention but we have limited resources in terms of people and just capability," said Charna Lefton, a spokeswoman for the agency's Southwest region, headquartered in Albuquerque.
Agency officials also took aim at environmentalists, saying a continuous stream of petitions and lawsuits seeking protection for various species results in priorities being dictated by court-ordered deadlines.
WildEarth Guardians maintains that it has tried to work with the agency on high priority species but that the agency has not been receptive.
"What we know is they are not listing species in the Southwest region and we also know there are a lot of candidates in the Southwest region that need listing," Rosmarino said. "Something needs to give."
Nationwide, there are more than 240 animals, plants and other creatures that are candidates for protection. That includes more than three dozen in the Southwest, such as the jumping mouse, the sand dune lizard and the Chupadera springsnail.
Environmentalists point out that some of the species have been on the candidates' list for years.
More than 1,300 U.S. species are currently listed as either threatened or endangered.
The Center for Biological Diversity is also challenging the warranted but precluded argument with litigation pending in Washington, D.C.
Like Rosmarino, Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said problems with the listing program go beyond the Southwest. He noted that the Obama administration has listed only one species in the continental U.S.
Rosmarino accused Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, of not having the willingness to address the endangered species bottleneck.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior have the power to take on these species listings. They're refusing to do so and they cannot persuasively argue at this point that it's just a resource matter," Rosmarino said. "I would argue it's an agency culture issue where they hide from their duties to protect species because of some powerful interests."
Lefton said many of the region's priorities for this year are based on court deadlines. The list includes more than a dozen actions, from determining whether the white-sided jackrabbit, the Jemez Mountain salamander and the Sonoran desert tortoise deserve protection to critical habitat decisions for the Chiricahua leopard frog and other species.
The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse is not on the list for this year.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says the mouse was once found in about 100 locations from the Jemez Mountains in the north, down through the Rio Grande Valley to the Sacramento Mountains in the south. Now, the mouse can be found in seven locations in Arizona and nine in New Mexico, one of which stretches up into Colorado. Many of the sites are just a few acres in size.