A federal judge has ordered the Bush administration to explain what prevents it from listing three rare species found in Idaho, New Mexico and at Lake Tahoe as endangered.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Portland, Ore., was hailed by environmental groups Friday as a victory in their efforts to list the Tahoe yellow cress plant, the southern Idaho ground squirrel and the sand dune lizard as threatened or endangered.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has categorized all three species as candidates to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. The designation provides no protection to the species but acknowledges their biological vulnerability and threats to survival.
Environmental groups hope Monday's ruling will force the government to issue findings in response to petitions they filed seeking protection for the species.
"We're glad the court rejected the Bush administration's continued foot-dragging and ordered them to consider these species for protection," said Noah Greenwald, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which last year joined Western Watersheds Project and Committee for the High Desert in suing Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
Betsy Lordan, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C., said designating the species as candidates for listing doesn't delay overall consideration.
The service "believes that adding a species to the list of candidate species in no way eliminates or further delays the obligation to make a 12-month finding," Lordan said Friday. "But the service will comply with the court order."
In the lawsuit, the environmental groups argued the service was skirting its legal responsibilities by claiming other priorities or budgetary constraints precluded it from considering the listings.
They further argued that claiming the species already were candidates for listings does not absolve the agency from responding to petition requests, or from explaining why it had not.
"Simply stating that there isn't enough money does not constitute a description and evaluation" as required under the law, Aiken wrote in the 16-page ruling that gave the government six months to comply.
The service has said it lacks the money to study all the potentially threatened species, in part, because it is overwhelmed with lawsuits from environmentalists.
The environmental groups said the wildlife service has created its own problems by not seeking adequate funding to do the job.
"The bottom line is that the Fish and Wildlife Service can't continue to blame its self-created budget crisis for the delays," said Matt Kenna, a lawyer for the conservation groups in Durango, Colo.
"If the service actually has to explain the cause of the delay, I think they'll be forced either to take action to list or request more money from Congress to do so."
The Smithsonian Institute first sought protection for the Tahoe yellow cress 29 years ago, in 1975. The plant lives only in a seven-foot zone from Lake Tahoe's low water line to a foot above the high water mark, and has been hurt by lakeside development. In 1999 only 10 populations were found, environmentalists said.
The sand dune lizard has the second smallest range of any lizard in North America, limited to dunes covered by low-growing oaks in southeastern New Mexico and western Texas. Environmentalists say it is threatened by oil and gas drilling and herbicide spraying.
The southern Idaho ground squirrel has a range limited to the low rolling hills of three counties in southwestern Idaho.