Congressman Markey Issues Sharp Criticisms of Draft Interpretation of "Endangered" and "Threatened" Species

Northeast Cottontail Historic and Current Range Map from FWS Fact Sheet 2011As previously blogged about here, on December 9, 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (Services) published a notice of proposed rulemaking (PDF) in the Federal Register that will, if adopted, change the Services' standards for listing and delisting species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by re-interpreting the definitions of "threatened" and "endangered" species in the ESA.

In a letter to the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service (PDF) dated January 26, 2012, Congressman Markey, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Natural Resources, expresses his "concerns that this policy has the potential to undermine several key provisions of the ESA by setting the bar for listing declining species at much too high a threshold."  So high, he argues, that "the bald eagle never would have been listed as an endangered species in the lower 48 States" because healthy populations of the bald eagle lived in Alaska "[e]ven during the worst era of DDT pesticide usage . . . ."

Markey also criticized the draft policy for ignoring "Congress' intent regarding the purpose of the ESA by refusing to consider the historic distribution of a species when making listing decisions about whether a species is in danger of extinction in a significant portion of its range."

Had such a policy been in place in the 1970s, Markey claims, "Americans would have had to travel to the most remote parts of Alaska to view species like the bald eagle, grizzly bear, or the gray wolf."  According to Markey, in passing the ESA, Congress did not sanction such a "living museum approach" to protect imperiled wildlife, but instead sought to protect ecosystems and restore species to their historic ranges.

The key provisions in the ESA provide that "'endangered species' means any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range . . . [,]" and "'threatened species' means any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range."

But the ESA itself does not include a definition of "significant portion" of a plant or animal's range.

Under the draft policy, when making listing decisions the Services would:

1.  Deem a portion of a species' range to be "significant" if its contribution to the viability of the species is so important that without that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction;

2.  Limit consideration of a species' status to the range used by a species at the time the listing decision is being made; and

3.  Extend a listing decision made on the basis of a threat to the species' viability throughout only a "significant portion of its range" to the entire species, throughout its entire range.

According to Markey, under the first aspect of the draft policy, "the FWS would only protect an imperiled animal or plant species when the decline within a significant portion of that species' geographic range implicates the 'viability' of the species as a whole.  In other words, the only parts of a species' range which matter are those portions that, if lost, would lead to the global extinction of that species."

With respect to the second aspect of the draft policy, Markey claims it "could make it even more tempting for future political appointees within the Department of Interior, as well as some members of Congress, to meddle with or defund the listing process because any delay in listing would invariably shrink the geographic range that a declining species currently occupies."

Markey argues that to be consistent with the ESA, Congressional intent, and the legislative history of the ESA, the Fish and Wildlife Service must instead develop and use "a precautionary, science-based standard for deciding when it is appropriate to protect a species under the ESA[,] [a]nd . . . must also devise a balanced, science-based approach for considering the historic range of declining species when making listing decisions as opposed to its [proposed] categorical approach where the historic range of any . . . species is always ignored."

Currently the 60-day comment period on the draft policy ends on February 7, 2012. 

Several environmental organizations have requested that the comment period be extended, but with the deadline to comment just days away, the Services have not indicated that they will issue an extension.

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