Lawsuit Launched Over Delay of Endangered Species Protections for 11 Species
WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity announced its intent today to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for delaying critically needed Endangered Species Act protections for 11 imperiled plants and animals. The species range from the Puerto Rico harlequin butterfly and the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle to a rare wetlands wildflower found only in Arizona and Mexico.
Coupled with the Service’s failure to make decisions for 66 species in fiscal year 2021, the delay in protecting these 11 species highlights persistent problems in the agency’s listing program that are placing plants and animals at increased risk. These continuing problems include politically driven decisions, crippling bureaucracy and a loss of scientific capacity.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service should be on the front lines of the fight to stop the extinction crisis. Instead, it’s bogged down in bureaucracy and politically driven decision making,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center. “Delays in protection have real consequences, leading to further declines and even extinction. It’s heartbreaking this agency can’t seem to get it together to make timely protection decisions.”
The lawsuit notice faults the Service for unlawfully delaying endangered species protections for the Arizona eryngo, Wright’s marsh thistle, Puerto Rico harlequin butterfly, round hickorynut, frecklebelly madtom, sickle darter, whitebark pine, Suwanee alligator snapping turtle, slickspot peppergrass, Big Creek crayfish and St. Francis river crayfish.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has long struggled to provide timely protection to species. The Endangered Species Act requires the entire process of listing species and designating critical habitat to take two years. But on average it has taken the Service 12 years, and in many cases decades, to protect species. At least 47 species have gone extinct waiting for the Service to act.
The Arizona eryngo is a rare, wetland wildflower from the carrot family. It can grow more than 5 feet tall and has large, cream-colored spherical flowers. There are only four surviving populations of Arizona eryngo in Arizona and Mexico. It formerly lived in New Mexico but is now gone from that state. The rare flower grows only in a specific type of permanently wet spring habitat called a Cienega. Cienegas are a type of wetland unique to the Southwest that provides homes for fish, amphibians, invertebrates and migratory birds within otherwise arid landscapes. More than 95% of Cienega habitats have been lost. The Arizona eryngo is at immediate risk of disappearing because of overuse of groundwater, livestock grazing, invasive species and climate change.
The Wright’s marsh thistle is a wetland plant found in New Mexico that requires water-saturated and alkaline soils, full sunlight, and a diversity of nearby plants to attract pollinators to the thistle itself. The marsh thistle was historically found in southern Arizona and Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico. Now it is only found in eight widely separated locations in southern New Mexico. The marsh thistle is threatened by cattle grazing, nonnative plants, and water diversion. It is also threatened by oil and gas spills from drilling, mineral mining, municipal and agricultural depletion of groundwater, and drought.
The Puerto Rico harlequin butterfly is a small, dark brown butterfly with black and deep orange markings. The butterfly uses prickly bush as a host plant for laying eggs and a food source for larvae. The butterfly is only found in the Mariaco Commonwealth Forest and the coastal cliffs in a small area in Quebradillas. The Mariaco Commonwealth Forest region was hit hard by Hurricane Maria and is still recovering. The butterfly is threatened by urban sprawl and increasingly intense hurricane seasons.
The round hickorynut is a 2.5-inch, almost perfectly round mussel with a greenish-olive shell and a yellow band. It lives in the Great Lakes and in the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee and Lower Mississippi River basins in Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia. The round hickorynut has lost 78% of its populations. It is threatened by water pollution from urbanization, agriculture, oil and gas drilling and pipelines, coal mining and coal-fired power plants. It is further threatened by collection, and increasing stream temperatures and storms caused by climate change.
The frecklebelly madtom is a stout, boldly patterned catfish that reaches 4 inches in length and lives in medium and large rivers with clean gravels in both the Pearl River and Mobile Basins of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. Madtoms are known for their parental care, as they construct nest cavities under a wide variety of features by moving substrate with their heads or mouths. The madtom’s upper Coosa River population is unstable, where pollution from agriculture and urban sprawl is driving the species towards extinction. It is also threatened by climate change.
The sickle darter is a recently identified freshwater fish. It is large by darter standards, growing to be nearly 5 inches long. It has larger scales than other darters and a prominent black stripe on its side. In Tennessee, there are populations of the sickle darter in the Emory, Little and Sequatchie rivers. These populations are separated from those in the upper Clinch, and Middle and North Fork Holston rivers in Virginia. The sickle darter has been wiped out in North Carolina. It is threatened by siltation that fills the spaces in between rocks on the river bottom that the fish needs to lay eggs and find prey. Water pollution from agriculture also threatens it, as does logging and mining and dams that separate its populations.
The whitebark pine lives at high elevations across Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada. Its seeds provide food for grizzly bears and a host of other species. But the whitebark pine is rapidly dying from white pine blister rust, an introduced disease. It’s also severely threatened by climate change, which encourages extensive outbreaks of mountain pine beetles, which kill the pine and allow competing tree species to take over its high-elevation habitats.
The Suwannee alligator snapping turtle is a prehistoric-looking turtle that can grow to 200 pounds and can live almost 100 years. These slow-moving, largely sedentary behemoths spend so much of their time sitting on river bottoms waiting for food that algae grows thick on their shells. They use a wormlike protrusion on their tongues to lure prey. It has no natural enemies and once thrived throughout the Southeastern United States, ranging from the Midwest to Florida and Texas. However, their populations have declined by up to 95% over much of their historic range due to overharvest and unchecked habitat degradation. The turtle is also easy prey for hunters that feed thriving world markets for the exhibition and consumption of the turtles.
The slickspot peppergrass is a flowering sagebrush-steppe plant found only in southwestern Idaho. It lives on the Snake River Plain and Owyhee Plateau and adjacent foothills. There are only about 90 occurrences of slickspot peppergrass on Earth, and most are in degraded and low-quality habitat. The slickspot peppergrass suffers the highest-known elimination rate of any Idaho plant. It is threatened by agriculture, mining, urban sprawl, livestock grazing and invasive species.
The Big Creek crayfish and St. Francis River crayfish are two distinct freshwater crustaceans found in the upper St. Francis River watershed upstream from Wapapello Dam in southeastern Missouri. They are threatened by the nonnative woodland crayfish, which can both displace native crayfish and interbreed with them. The Big Creek crayfish is also threatened by heavy-metal contamination of its streams caused by mining.