(May 9, 2007)

By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
From Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The case of the Hawaiian Haha is no laughing matter to environmentalists, who say the rare plant went extinct while waiting for U.S. wildlife officials to put it on the Endangered Species list.

The Haha's fate is a symptom of wider problems at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees programs aimed at protecting threatened species, according to a report for release on Wednesday by the Center for Biological Diversity.

The report, obtained by Reuters on Tuesday, said that the Bush administration has listed 57 species as protected since 2001, far fewer than the 512 species listed in the Clinton administration and less than the 234 species listed during the four-year presidency of George H.W. Bush, the current president's father.

At least two species -- the Haha of Hawaii and the Lake Sammamish Kokonee, a fish native to Washington state -- went extinct while waiting for protection during this administration, the report said.

"There are a certain number of species on the candidate list right now that are close to extinction, and that ought to be listed, and what the administration has done to date is to say that they don't have enough money and resources to list these species," said Bill Snape, senior counsel for the biodiversity center.

"They're definitely in a pattern of waiting and waiting and waiting until either the species does go extinct or the next administration comes in," Snape said in a telephone interview.

He said the budget for listing wildlife as endangered has increased during the current administration.


Hugh Vickery, a spokesman for the Interior Department, which includes the Fish & Wildlife Service, acknowledged the low number of Endangered Species listings but said this was due to a backlog of litigation against the agency, some of it launched by environmental advocacy groups including the Center for Biological Diversity.

"We have literally hundreds of species that are being considered at any particular moment," Vickery said by telephone. "The Fish & Wildlife Service does biological triage, they deal with the most critical species first."

The wildlife protection program has been a long-running target of environmentalists, Vickery said, and provided a report from 2000 that accused the Clinton administration of attacking endangered species.

More recently, the program came under scrutiny when an internal investigation found agency scientists complaining that a political appointee was bullying them into tailoring their findings about endangered species to fit a particular policy, generally one that opposed adding new wildlife to the protection program.

The official, Julie MacDonald, resigned in April, and Vickery declined to comment on the case.

Bryan Arroyo, the acting assistant director for endangered species at the agency, acknowledged a years-long backlog of so-called candidate species that are waiting to be considered for endangered species protection.

"Some of these species we haven't had a chance to truly evaluate to see whether they ought to be listed or not," Arroyo said by telephone. "There is a paucity of data."

For example, the extinction of the Haha has not been confirmed by the agency, even though none have been observed since 2001, Arroyo said. As for the Lake Sammamish Kokonee, the agency is investigating the status of the fish, he said.

Snape said a Fish & Wildlife Service document last year said the Haha appeared extinct, while an internal document indicated the Kokonee was extinct.

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