Congress Forces FWS to Miss Court-Ordered Deadline: September 30th Deadline To Protect Declining Wildlife Passes By Florida Black Bear

(09/30/1996) - ST. PETERSBURG, FL - Biologists in Florida and Georgia are wondering what happened to the court-ordered deadline for the protection of the Florida black bear. In 1992 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), then under the Bush Administration, agreed to propose for listing more than 440 wildlife species by September 30, 1996. As part of a settlement agreement with Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation organizations, the federal agency vowed to streamline its listing program under the Endangered Species Act and provide protection to declining species like the shy Florida black bear.

"The Florida black bear clearly needs federal protection. We've known since 1990 that this species is headed towards extinction," said Laurie Macdonald, a wildlife zoologist with Defenders' Habitat for Bears Campaign. "It boggles my mind that after six years, and in violation of the settlement agreement, this wonderful and rare bear is still wandering the Southeast without protection." Indeed, once considered a high priority for listing, FWS has now ranked the bear as very last on its waiting list.

The 1992 settlement agreement (under Fund for Animals v. Lujan) required FWS to propose for listing - or make final decisions not to list - approximately 440 plant and animal species for which FWS had substantial information to support listing by September 30, 1996. Approximately 85 of the original species covered under the settlement agreement continue to languish without listing proposals, while FWS estimates that two of the species (Hawaiian plants) have already disappeared.

Delay in Listing Caused By Congress The explanation for the delay in listing the bear, as well as the other 80 or so species covered by the settlement agreement, is found in Washington D.C. During the first few months of the 104th Congress, a year-long moratorium on listing decisions was proposed by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and enacted by Congress. Coupled with drastic funding cuts, government shutdowns and serious political pressure to gut the Endangered Species Act, the ESA listing program was severely crippled. "The situation is tragic," said Heather Weiner, Legislative Counsel for Defenders. "The listing program normally operates at half-speed anyway. With the listing moratorium and funding cuts, we knew there was no way the FWS would be able to meet the court-ordered listing deadline on time."

FWS Not Making Situation Any Better "Unfortunately, FWS has not made the situation any better. The agency is scrambling to revamp the listing program and we are afraid that many species in need of protection, like the Florida black bear, are going to slip through the cracks," Weiner added. FWS has announced that it will only focus on the 250 species already proposed for listing and in need of final decisions. Another 160 candidate species need listing proposals, and an additional 3,700 species are suspected to be in need of protection. "FWS is learning about new species in danger every day. While it is hard to properly determine which species need protection the most, wildlife from the 1992 settlement agreement, like the Florida black bear, should be given equal and scientifically sound consideration."

Without Listing, Florida Black Bears Will Continue to Decline

According to Macdonald, the biggest threats to the Florida black bear are habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and roadkill. "In areas where bears try to cross highways looking for food, mates and places to den, they are quite likely either to turn back or to be hit by speeding vehicles," she explained. If the Florida black bear was listed under the Endangered Species Act, in accordance with the 1992 settlement agreement, many of these deaths could be prevented. "With listing comes the power to enact better transportation planning, such as avoiding habitat fragmentation by new highways and installing wildlife crossings where problems already exist," she explained.

One male bear needs approximately 15,000 acres of habitat for survival. "By protecting the bear's habitat, we also conserve habitat for other declining wildlife, like the Florida scrub jay, gopher tortoise, eastern indigo snake, woodstork, bald eagle and even manatees," explained Macdonald. If the bear was granted protection under the ESA, federal agencies, state agencies and private landowners would be required to implement habitat conservation measures to eventually recover the bear. "Bear habitat conservation can be compatible with many private land uses, such as agriculture, timber and other forest product uses," she said.

ESA Listing Program in Need of Improvement

Defenders of Wildlife is going back to court to find a solution to FWS' violation of the court-ordered settlement agreement. The long- term solution will probably be found outside of court, however. Defenders believes there are ways to strengthen the listing program:

  1. Increase Funding for the Listing Program - Budget cuts have decimated the ESA listing program. Congress allocated FWS a mere $4 million for a year's work in FY 1996. The outlook for FY 1997 is dim because Congress may deny FWS $2.5 million of its requested funding.
  2. Strengthen the Endangered Species Act - "The ESA currently offers no mandatory measures to prevent the further decline of candidate species," explained Weiner. Working with ESA experts from around the country, Defenders has come up with a set of ESA legislative proposals that they will try to pass during the next session. Called the Endangered Natural Heritage Act, Defenders' draft proposal would increase protections for candidate species and improve the listing process.
  3. Take an Ecosystem Approach - In the 1992 settlement agreement, FWS vowed to pursue a multi-species ecosystem approach for its listing responsibilities. Unfortunately, funding constraints and political pressure have squelched many attempts at multi-species listings. By analyzing the common nature of threats facing ecosystems (usually habitat destruction), FWS can list all of the species together rather than listing each one in case-by-case decisions. At the same time, it is more cost-effective to list a group of species in one ecosystem than to list each one as an individual.
  4. Keep Politics Out of Science - Members of Congress are known to harass and threaten FWS when a listing decision is not going their way. No one should play political football with the listing process while species continue to spiral toward extinction. Perhaps the most useful thing Congress could do is simply leave FWS biologists alone to do their jobs professionally. Said Macdonald, "The Florida

Said Macdonald, "The Florida black bear is a great example of why Defenders filed the lawsuit in 1992. As an umbrella species, its protection will benefit other wildlife. Unlike situations where there is one individual of a species left in front of a bulldozer, the Florida bear is in danger from the cumulative impacts of many threats. By protecting it now, we could avoid drastic and perhaps costly measures necessary to bring it back to recovery. "



Joan Moody, 202-682-9400 x220 (Media)
Laurie Macdonald, 813-821-9585 (Field Coordinator)