Wading Through an Endangered Species Backlog

The Bush administration has added fewer plants and animals to the endangered species list than the last two administrations. But this year, the government may start protecting a group of species that has been ignored previously — those on the endangered species "candidate list."

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Since the start of the Bush administration, 56 plants and animals have been added to the federal endangered species list, fewer by a long shot than the number of new listings under presidents Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush.

But this year, the administration may start protecting species that were ignored by previous administrations, the plants and animals that have languished on the endangered species candidate list.

NPR's John Nielsen has the story.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

JOHN NIELSEN: Those are sounds that you will only hear near the Alakai Swamp on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, and only if you are very, very lucky. That's because the tiny birds that make these sounds are extremely rare. They're known as Kauai Creepers, and by most accounts, they are now teetering on the very brink of extinction.

Local ornithologists say this species desperately needs the federal help that would come with an endangered species listing, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has chosen not to do that. Instead, it has added these birds to the endangered species candidate list. Douglas Crofta(ph), who oversees the listing of endangered species, says that's where some rare plants and animals end up after they are found to be at risk…

Mr. DOUGLAS CROFTA (United States Fish and Wildlife Service): …but maybe not to the point where it's an emergency or that we need to list it right away. Maybe right now we don't have the funding for it, and at that point, we'd say that listing is warranted, but it's precluded.

NIELSEN: At least temporarily, due to either lack of funds or lack of manpower. That sends rare species into what has been described as the waiting room next door to the endangered species hospital.

The last remaining Kauai Creepers flew into that room back in 1994, according to Crofta. Fourteen years later, they are still in there, alongside Miami Blue butterflies, Yosemite frogs and more than 280 other rare plants and animals.

Noah Greenwald, a scientist with the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity, says some species have been in this room since the early 1980s.

Mr. NOAH GREENWALD (Scientist, Center for Biological Diversity): Actually on average, they've been waiting for protection for 19 years. So it's turned into a substantial purgatory for species, where being designated as a candidate essentially does nothing for them. It provides no protection whatsoever.

NIELSEN: The endangered species waiting list was created in 1982. Species that got parked there weren't supposed to stay for long, and the rarest ones were supposed to be first in line for a spot on the actual endangered species list.

But by most accounts, that system has long been overwhelmed by budget cuts and by court orders that force the Fish and Wildlife Service to meet tight listing deadlines. Activists say one way the government did that was by putting hundreds of new species onto the candidate list. They say that's what turned the waiting room into a dumping ground.

But this year, that might change, partly because Congress and the White House have agreed to sharply increase the budget for endangered species listings. What that means, according to Douglas Crofta, is that a lot of species now in the waiting room may soon get beds in the hospital.

Mr. CROFTA: For the first time in quite some time, we actually have money to work on the candidate program and the candidate list and start really doing the evaluations to take them to the next step, if warranted. And so in this fiscal year, we're actually looking at proposals to list 71 species.

NIELSEN: Including the last remaining Kauai Creepers. Actually, says Crofta, the majority of the rare species now being reviewed are only found on the Hawaiian Islands.

Mr. CROFTA: But we have other species, we have some mussels in the Southeast that we're looking at, some other salamanders. So we have a good representation across the country.

NIELSEN: Crofta says it's likely that the Bush administration will propose more new listings in their last year in office than they did in the first seven. As dozens of new listings plans could come out before the summer's over, dozens more could come out in the fall, after the elections.

Environmental groups have been responding to this unexpected news with what you might call guarded praise. Matt Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity says a spate of new listings would be a welcome step forward from the Bush administration and a step that is way overdue.

Mr. GREENWALD: They haven't protected a single species in 677 days at this point, which is by far the longest period that any administration has gone without protecting a new species since the act was passed.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

NIELSEN: Nobody knows whether a spot on the endangered species list would be enough to save the last remaining Kauai Creepers. All that's clear at this point is that if these birds do get listed, the job of actually saving them would be left to the next administration.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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