Wildlife lawsuits, as far as the eye can see

It takes a lawyer (or a bunch of them) to get a species protected under the Endangered Species Act these days.

As we've discussed here many times before, the U.S. Interior Department consistently misses legal deadlines to review petitions to protect rare species, and then misses more deadlines to make decisions to protect them or not.

This glacial pace (can we still use the term "glacial" in a period of global warming?) has resulted in lawsuit after lawsuit by environmental groups trying to dislodge species from the roadblocks -- lawsuits which sometimes work, but which are often decried by government and business as getting in the way or taking up resources that could be spent studying the species in question.

This week's Newsweek takes an in-depth look at the Endangered Species Act, the constant lawsuits, and the Interior Department's history of mis-management. There are more than a few interesting statements inside, among them:

(Interior Department Secretary Dirk) Kempthorne and Dale Hall, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, agree that they've been slow to add listings, but blame environmental groups for monopolizing their time with endless petitions and lawsuits... In any case, Kempthorne tells NEWSWEEK, his priority has been to study and manage the species already listed: monitoring population size, defining their critical habitats and drawing up recovery plans. "Of the species that are listed, we now have recovery plans for 80 percent of them," he says. "That's significant." Moreover, he says, the logjam has now been broken. By Sept. 30, he promised, the department will determine the fate of 71 species now on the waiting list, nearly a quarter of the total.

If this September 30th promise is true, it's good news for endangered species. Of course, we've seen Kempthorne miss self-set deadlines time and again, so we'll have to wait and see what the news holds on October 1st.

And let's look at those "monopolizing" lawsuits. Obviously, everyone would prefer that no lawsuits were necessary to get a species protected. And I don't think anyone would disagree that ground-level Fish and Wildlife Service personnel are well-intentioned but over-worked, under-funded and under-staffed. But there is also a lack of initiative on the part of the Bush Administration to do anything to protect endangered species. In seven years, the Bushies have only protected 60 species -- and if they add 71 more to that list, it still won't compare to the 753 species protected during the 12 years Presidents Clinton and Bush I were in office.

Newsweek does a pretty good job looking at this, but still falls into the trap of mocking little-known species such as the yellowcheek darter and Phantom Cave snail because they have funny names or aren't iconic. It's writing like this that makes it harder to inspire people to protect endangered species.

Meanwhile, populations continue to shrink, and new lawsuits continue to be necessary. Which is where the lawyers come in once again.