Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne steered his agencies policy on endangered species away from that of his predecessor Gale Norton by ordering reviews of past decisions that had clearly been politicized and by proposing for listing the polar bear.
But Kempthorne has set a new record period for an administration going the longest without listing a species as threatened and endangered. Interior has listed no species during Kempthorne's tenure and no species at all in 576 days. That sets a new record in the 34 years since the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973.
Kempthorne even surpasses James Watt, who went 382 days without listing a species during 1981 and 1982. Why is listing a species so controversial?
Once a species is listed all federal agencies must begin consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if any of their activities or the activities they fund or directly oversee are jeopardizing the listed species. If they find that one of these activities is likely to jeopardize a species then it has to be modified so it doesn’t.
This is the process that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation and other federal agencies have been forced to use to develop biological opinions on how Columbia and Snake dams affect 13 stocks of threatened and endangered salmon.
They alternative is to place species on a candidate list and declare that other species have a higher priority. There are 280 species currently on that list.
Norton used to argue that it didn’t make sense adding more species to the list when there wasn’t enough money to manage the species already there. And she said most of the money for listing species was going to litigation with environmental groups suing to get species on the list.
The main group pushing this strategy is the Center for Biodiversity, headed by activist Kieran Suckling. They have gotten dozens of species protected by going to court.
But Suckling has evidence that his and others lawsuits are not breaking Interior’s bank for listing funds. Of the agency’s listing $5.1 million listing budget only $100,000 -- 2% of the total -- was spent on attorney's fees and litigation expenses.
So why does this matter? Suckling says 85 species went extinct between 1973 and 1994 due to delays in placing them on the endangered species list. Twenty-four of these were on the official candidate list when they went extinct.