After years of neglect, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must update its list of endangered and threatened species in the next three years, a federal judge ruled this week.
The ruling came after Florida builders filed a lawsuit in 2005 claiming the out-of-date list caused unfair construction delays and inflated housing prices.
In his decision on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John Antoon II dismissed the agency's defense that it lacked the necessary money and resources to comply with a congressional mandate to review the status of endangered and threatened species every five years. Antoon said the agency "should take up such constraints with Congress rather than let mandatory deadlines expire with inaction."
But the judge also rejected the Florida Builders Association's demand that the backlogged reviews be completed in one year. He called the request "unrealistic, if not impossible."
Antoon settled instead on the agency's promise to review 89 plant and animal species on the list before Sept. 10, 2010.
Builders, developers and others have argued that without the timely reviews, building projects could be held up or scuttled to unnecessarily protect an animal that is no longer endangered, they said.
"We would have preferred an expedited schedule, but the fact the reviews are going to be done is what's most important," said Steven Gieseler, an attorney for the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, who represented the builders in the suit.
The Sacramento, Calif., foundation contends regulators held property owners to tough standards required by the Endangered Species Act but were lax in complying with their own legal obligations.
"It's a recognition that the government can't ignore the laws that it deems inconvenient," said Gieseler, who runs the Pacific Legal Foundation's Atlantic branch in Florida.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chris Tollefson said he hadn't seen the order and couldn't comment on it. But he said the agency has acknowledged it is working through an extensive backlog to evaluate endangered and threatened species. The agency currently has 1,008 species of plants and animals on the endangered list and another 304 listed as threatened.
"We're doing our best to get through them as quickly as we can," Tollefson said Thursday.
The lawsuit, filed in Orlando, originally identified 106 species that had never been formally reviewed, ranging from such icons as the bald eagle and manatee to the more obscure like the Key Largo wood rat. The bald eagle was recently removed from the list and an effort is under way to move the manatee from endangered to threatened status.
The suit said that development necessary to meet the demands in fast-growing states such as Florida could be unnecessarily blocked by protected animals and plants. In other cases, the cost of compliance drives up housing prices.
Similar lawsuits brought around the country by the Pacific Legal Foundation and other property rights groups are forcing the Fish and Wildlife Service to accelerate its reviews nationally of endangered and threatened species.
In a 2005 California settlement with Pacific Legal, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to review 194 species within eight years. The case was brought on behalf of the California Cattlemen's Association, the California Forestry Association and others.