Being in the top 40 isn't always a good thing. Just outside the list of endangered and threatened species is a roster of potential candidates just shy of making the endangered and threatened lists, which grant federal protection. This week, the conservation group WildEarth Guardians will issue a critical report on the top 40 candidates, arguing that the government must act quickly if these puttering life forms are to have any chance of survival.
Environmental activists believe the Obama administration will be more receptive to their requests than the Bush White House, which moved in its waning days to allow Interior Department employees to ignore the evaluations of field scientists when deciding whether to add a species to the list. The previous administration said the rule was a way to cut through bureaucracy, but critics said it cut science out of the picture. Obama's interior secretary, Ken Salazar, killed the change on Tuesday.
There are currently 1,009 endangered plants and animals in the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which maintains the lists. There are another 308 species on the threatened list, which means they are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. And on the less lucky list are 252 candidates for protective classification. Most of the mammals, birds, insects and plants on the current candidate list have sat there for years, without protection, as their numbers dwindle toward extinction.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is not supposed to give priority to cuteness (see bear, polar) or symbolic relevance (see eagle, bald). The way it was designed in 1973, the government's role would be to analyze population numbers and designations by several nature-monitoring organizations, some of them nongovernmental. Shrinking habitat has always been a chief factor in determining whether a species is under threat.
Almost 80 percent of the current top 40 candidates are located in and around the Pacific; just over half of them are plants. Nonnative species, which are often introduced by humans, have been the biggest factor in driving the most imperiled species into even deeper obscurity. The Warton cave spider, an arachnid known to exist in only one cave near Austin, Texas, was deemed a candidate in 1994. Another Southern critter that lacks instant name recognition, the Diamond Y springsnail, has sat in limbo for two decades, and hasn't been seen in the past few years.
"Insufficient information" is the common FWS refrain for having denied these creatures a full endangered or threatened listing. Conservationists counter that some species have such dismal numbers—only 39 Lanai tree snails were observed the last time the species was monitored in 2005—that scientists don't have much to work with to amass additional data.
The newest report by WildEarth Guardians will praise the government's recent endangered listings: the polar bear last summer and a Hawaiian plant species called Phyllostegia hispida last month. But it calls both a "drop in the bucket" of what actually needs to be done. "The nation needs an active endangered-species listing program, where groups of species are listed at once, and the annual listing rate increases by an order of magnitude," writes Nicole Rosmarino, who authored the report.
Over the past decade, the process has become infamous for moving at the pace of a sickly slug. From start to finish, the process of listing a new species typically takes about two and a half years. A caveat for an emergency listing was written into the ESA, but the Bush administration never opted to used it. (Bush listed only 60 species in his eight years, compared with 522 under Clinton and 231 under George H.W. Bush, who served half the time.)
Doug Krofta, a biologist who heads the ESA listing program for Fish and Wildlife, says that the mountain of litigation coming from outside groups trying to compel protection for suffering species has stretched the service increasingly thin, especially with the limited number of people who work full time for FWS. It's the most-cited reason why the service hasn't been able to be more proactive on proposing new species. Krofta says that most of the time, the FWS physically cannot take on more work. "Additional funding would help; additional staff would help," he says. "It'd be hard to put an exact number on it."
When asked about the current budget of the listing program, Secretary Salazar, who answers to the president on its progress, tells NEWSWEEK that he will look into new sources of funding, but cautions that a tough budget climate makes the pursuit difficult. "Part of the solution needs to be in managing our lands in such a way that fewer species reach the point where they need to be listed," he says.
The biggest legal avalanche came in 2002, when a lawsuit compelled biologists in all regional FWS offices to devote all available resources to mapping critical habitats for hundreds of already-listed species. When they were finally finished a few years later, a mountain of petitions for new listings awaited.
Conservation groups that are the plaintiffs of those often-bemoaned lawsuits make no apologies. "It's a process that practically invites litigation," says Kassie Siegel, an environmental lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity. Over the past two decades, the CBD has become the legal driver of the endangered-species program. Siegel and CBD conservation biologist Noah Greenwald count their record of litigation among the group's biggest successes. Since 2001, 94 percent of all new listings have been compelled by CBD action. Last summer's high-profile listing of the polar bear was the result of a protracted legal fight between the center and Bush's interior secretary, Dirk Kempthorne.
The polar bear was the last animal to be offered full protection until the Obama administration listed Phyllostegia hispida last month—a 10-month span of virtual standstill for the program. (A species of salamander was listed in early February, though with certain preclusions.) But full listing is the last step of the long process. The Bush administration did indeed keep the ball rolling last fall when Kempthorne proposed 48 new species—known as "the Kauai species"—for full listing, which is expected to occur before October. A few of these are on the current top-40 candidate list.
In its report, WildEarth Guardians calls on Obama to recognize the role a changing climate will have on dwindling populations of species all over the world. Last month Time magazine forecast on its cover an impending mass extinction of up to a third of the earth's species—including, perhaps, even humans. Of course, preventing something of that magnitude might require a mightier sword than the ESA, even if it is driven by a popular president.