Habitat lawsuits sidetrack U.S. wildlife agency

Associated Press
The Spokesman-Review

July 25, 2002

WASHINGTON _ Workers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are so bogged down by lawsuits and other paperwork they have little time for conservation or recovery of endangered species, a report finds.

The report by the General Accounting Office also finds that the agency lacks financial controls to ensure that money targeted for endangered species programs is spent lawfully. In at least two cases, the agency used money from the endangered species program improperly to hire law firms to respond to personnel problems, including complaints of discrimination, the report says.

The new report, requested by the House Government Reform Committee, says lawsuits challenging Fish and Wildlife's designations of critical habitats are so commonplace that workers now spend more than 50 percent of their time on paperwork for litigation or attempting to avoid it.

By contrast, staffers in the agency's seven regional offices spent just over a quarter of their time recovering endangered species, one of the agency's top missions, the report says.

The report blames the paperwork glut in part on unclear guidelines that make it difficult for workers to designate critical habitats that are not vulnerable to legal challenges. The report recommends that the agency develop consistent guidelines to reduce the number of lawsuits and allow it to better defend decisions that are challenged.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the government reform committee and a longtime Fish and Wildlife critic, said the report shows environmental lawsuits are driving the agency's agenda.

"It's no wonder private and federal land owners are confused and frustrated by critical habitat regulations and have asked for relief," Burton said. "The Fish and Wildlife Service must immediately create comprehensive national critical habitat standards ... based on common sense, strict accountability and good science."

Spokesman Mitch Snow said Tuesday the agency did not contest the findings of the GAO report and has frequently made the same point in its budget requests.

While the amount of time spent on litigation is high, it is down from several years ago when Fish and Wildlife had virtually "no money at all to do anything but respond to lawsuits," Snow said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said in November 2000 that it could add no more wildlife to the endangered species list for at least a year because it must devote so much time and money to defending environmental lawsuits.

In a written reply to the GAO report, Paul Hoffman, deputy assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said the department agrees that better guidelines are needed for designation of critical habitats.

A draft report with specific recommendations is expected this fall, he said.

Barry Hill, director of the GAO's Natural Resources and Environment division and an author of the report, said Fish and Wildlife employees "are in a difficult situation."

Because of their workload and time frames set by the Endangered Species Act, employees have no choice but to meet court-ordered deadlines, Hill said.

"Consultations, litigation and paperwork ... keep them in the office and prevent them from doing as much field work as they need to do and in fact are funded to do," he said.

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