BILLINGS, Mont. – The Obama administration on Tuesday announced a deal with environmentalists to work through a backlog of more than 250 imperiled animals and plants and decide which merit greater protections.
Most would likely be proposed for threatened or endangered status if a federal judge approves the agreement, Interior Department officials said. The species to be reviewed range from the greater sage grouse and Canada lynx, to 110 plants and 38 kinds of mollusks.
That could lay the groundwork for a spate of future conflicts over industrial development, water management and residential expansion wherever humans are encroaching into the natural world.
Conservation groups and government agencies in some cases already are working to prevent such disputes, hoping to avoid a repeat of the bitter fights that emerged over protections for the northern spotted owl, gray wolf and snail darter.
Some of the plants and animals in the announcement were first proposed for protection soon after the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Instead, they languished for decades on a list of "candidate species" that the government could not afford to help.
Final decisions would be due by September 2016. It would settle pending litigation between the Interior Department and Denver-based WildEarth Guardians.
WildEarth is among a handful of groups that have filed hundreds of legal actions against the agency, hoping to force it to make it extend protections to candidate species. Those comprise a long list of fish, birds, mammals, plants and even snails that scientists already have determined need greater protections to avoid extinction.
Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said the backlog has been made worse by lawsuits that have distracted the Fish and Wildlife Service from needed scientific reviews and restoration work.
"This plan will enable the endangered species program to function as it was originally intended," Hayes said. "Priorities are being set by plaintiffs in courts, instead of by wildlife professionals."
But approval of the settlement could be complicated by opposition from another group involved in multiple lawsuits over endangered species, the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Tucson, Ariz., group is a plaintiff in some of the cases before U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan covered by Tuesday's settlement. Director Kieran Suckling said he was approached by the Interior Department but refused to sign the deal because the government omitted key species that could be harmed by climate change.
Suckling said two candidate species left out of the deal — the wolverine and Pacific walrus — merit protections that could potentially affect tens of millions of acres in the Rocky Mountains and the Arctic.
"They have massive implications for combating global warming and the administration is trying to avoid that at all costs," Suckling said.
Interior officials also said they plan to make initial findings on an additional 600 species for which groups have filed petitions seeking greater protections.
J.B. Ruhl, a property law professor and endangered species expert from Florida State University, said he expects the aquatic species covered in the announcement to be the source of the most controversy in the future. Any new protections for those fish and mollusks would come as competition for water resources increases nationwide, he said.