US authority failing to list endangered species

Conservation groups claim that Bush appointees have been deliberately making it harder to designate animals and plants

Bald eagles, wolves, snails, butterflies and many other species native to the US have long been at risk. Many have made it on to the country's endangered species list, but not under the Bush administration over the last two years.

Conservation groups claim that Bush appointees have been deliberately making it harder to designate animals and plants as endangered, and have launched a series of lawsuits. Administration officials admit that there are about 280 species waiting to be added to the list.

George Bush's father designated 231 species as endangered or threatened in his single term. In Bill Clinton's eight years 521 species were designated as endangered. Bush has designated 59 in seven years, and none in the last two since Dirk Kempthorne became secretary of the interior, the department responsible.

Conservation groups such as the Sierra group said Kempthorne, a former senator and head of a housing development group, was biased in favour of commercial interests.

The lack of urgency in the US comes against a background of concern worldwide that conservationists are losing the battle. That fear was summed up last year by the Red List of the World Conservation Union, an environmental network. Its list defined 16,306 species as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.

The Washington Post yesterday published internal documents from the interior department showing that officials have frequently overruled recommendations from scientists. The lack of recent designations could be motivated by various interests such as a desire not to see oil exploration or housing development shackled by a need to protect habitats that are home to threatened species.

But the bureaucratic obstruction may also reflect a tightening in spending across the board being felt this year because of the billions being spent on the Iraq war. Placing species on the list often needs to be followed up with federal spending.

Officials at the interior department insisted the real reason was that it has been hampered since the 1990s by lawsuits from conservation and other groups.

A relatively new group, the Wild Earth Guardians, based in the American west, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday seeking a court order to protect 681 species at once, including snails, butterflies and plants.

The group said the situation is urgent and described the roadblock by the Bush administration over designation as criminal. The documents obtained by the Post show staff slowing or blocking designation through means including changes in the way they assess threatened species.


Ewen MacAskill in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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