Freedom of Information request reveals quota for cutting endangered species protections

Clear, fast flowing streams like this one in Tennessee are prime habitat for threatened species like the Eastern hellbender, which recently lost federal protections.  (© Bill Lea)

A Freedom of Information Act request by SELC and Defenders of Wildlife has revealed that the Southeast region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has adopted a quota to encourage de-listing and down-listing of endangered species and declining to list other deserving species. Only “listed” species are entitled to the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

Last year, SELC requested documents from the agency under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking records of any policy changes that would affect species’ listing statuses. Although the agency has stonewalled our request, a few documents have slipped out, and they verify both the existence of the de-listing quota — known in the agency as the “Wildly Important Goal,” or WIG — and the fact that there are many more critical documents being withheld.

SELC and Defenders of Wildlife have filed a lawsuit against Fish & Wildlife Services and the Department of the Interior for failing to release the bulk of the records that would show how the quota is affecting agency decisions.

The few documents that have been released confirm an annual goal to “conserve” at least 30 species by removing them from endangered species list or declining to add new species to the list. Yet the documents show that the agency is cutting resources from real, on-the-ground conservation and recovery work, and instead instructing staff to spend their time justifying negative listing decisions on paper.

In our ongoing litigation, the agency’s lawyers have confirmed that the WIG quota remains in effect. Conservationists are concerned that this policy provides an incentive to prematurely delist endangered species and deny protection to those that need it—a concern shared by staff within the Fish and Wildlife Service, who have complained internally about the quota.

For instance, FWS has acknowledged since 2011 that the striped newt, a salamander in north Florida and southern Georgia, is either endangered or threatened. It had not been listed, however, because higher priority species were above it in the queue. Inexplicably, the agency reversed course in 2018 and concluded that “the threats impacting the striped newt are of lower magnitude than were previously thought.”

Eastern Hellbender

This April, the Fish and Wildlife Service denied the Endangered Species Application for the eastern hellbender, the largest aquatic salamander in the nation whose historic habitat stretches across the Southeast. The animal's habitat has shrunk in recent years as the clear, fast flowing streams it prefers fall prey to development.

It’s unknown whether that decision, based on a flimsy rationale, was driven by the WIG quota, but the documents uncovered by SELC so far do show that the agency’s Species Status Assessments are being closely watched by senior officials to ensure decisions “align with our WIG outcomes.”

"The striped newt decision, among others, is consistent with what you’d expect out of a policy that puts a thumb on the scale against the protection of deserving species," said Sam Evans, a senior SELC attorney. "It encourages declaring victory prematurely for species that still need protection."

In total, 31 species received negative listing decisions in 2017, and the agency was on track to exceed those numbers in 2018. Meanwhile, at least 113 more species are on the chopping block, as the agency ramps up its de-listing efforts. In April of this year, the agency denied the listing applicaiton for the eastern hellbender, an iconic species found in the streams throughout the Southeast. 

The lack of justification for the decisions rolled out thus far, combined with the documented goal of delisting species has SELC and our partners watching the agency’s new listing decisions closely as our suit proceeds.

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