Unlikely Partners in Talks to Save Wildlife Deal

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Unlikely Partners in Talks to Save Wildlife Deal: U.S. officials, environmental groups near plan to protect six rare species in state.

By DEBORAH SCHOCH, LOA ANGELES TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Federal officials and several environmental groups are working to forge an agreement to protect more than two dozen of the nation's most imperiled plants and animals, including six rare species in California.The agreement, which  protection to plants and animals that currently lack the legal safeguards provided by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, one of the nation's most powerful environmental laws.

Among the California wildlife that could be protected is the island fox, a small mammal with subspecies on six islands off the Southern California coast. Several of those have warned for years. Negotiations began this spring with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on one side and four environmental groups on the other.

The outcome could be especially meaningful for California, where hundreds of rare species are in some danger of becoming extinct. The state already has more plants and animals on the endangered species list than any other state except Hawaii. The Clinton administration announced a nationwide moratorium on new listings in November, complaining that it was overwhelmed by environmental groups' lawsuits.

Such legal entanglements have drawn fire from many lawmakers, who contend that the Endangered Species Act values plants and animals over people's economic well-being.
What makes the talks noteworthy is that they have brought together natural antagonists. On one sideis a federal administration that attempted this spring to make it more difficult for citizens to sue the government to force the listing of rare plants and animals.

On the other side are four environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, well known for frequently suing to strengthen protections of rare species.
The group has filed 75 lawsuits involving 182 species, winning 59 and losing only one case, according to the center. Both sides were reluctant Tuesday to say much about the potential pact. "We've been in negotiations for some time. I can't give you details because we're still working on the agreement," said Chris Tollefson, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington. The service oversees and enforces the Endangered Species Act.

"If we can come to an agreement, we'll do some good things for some declining species. It will give us greater ability to prioritize our limited resources." But Tollefson added that "we wouldn't be agreeing to list necessarily" all of the species under discussion.

Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the complex agreement could involve different approaches for different species. A rare California butterfly called the Carson wandering skipper could be rushed onto the list, he said. The butterfly lives in only two places, both of them along the California-Nevada border. In one of those locations, just two butterflies were found this year, he said. "It's as close to extinction as any species can possibly be," Suckling said.

For most species, the government could be required to rapidly make a final decision on whether to add them to the list, Suckling said. He said he is confident that most of those species will be listed.As part of the pact, environmentalists may agree to extend for certain species the time allotted to map "critical habitat," the land essential for the survival of the species. The pact could speed mapping for other species.

Such determinations are among the most controversial requirements of the act because they often limit how land can be used.

Besides Suckling's group, the talks have involved the California Native Plant Society, the Biodiversity Legal Foundation and the Southern Appalachia Biodiversity Project.
Even with an agreement in place, Suckling said, the center has no plans to slow down its pace of litigation.

In fact, the center and two other groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday to expand critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado."We all agree that this agreement is not going to make the conflict go away. It's certainly not going to protect all of America's endangered species. But it's a good start," Suckling said.
 


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