Wildearth Guardians filed suit in March against the interior secretary to get the Bush administration to make a determination on whether 681 species of animals should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The environmental group has every right to sue. These species are either threatened, endangered or bordering on extinction. But the problem can't be traced to willful resistance by the Bush administration. The original cause of the problem is a barrage of lawsuits dating to the Clinton administration that has slowed the process of protecting species to a near halt.




That's not to say that the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bush hasn't given environmental groups reason to doubt his intentions. Last year, an Interior Department inspector general's report criticized Julie MacDonald, deputy assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife and parks from 2004 to 2007, for routinely ignoring the advice of staff scientists and changing their recommendations on critical habitats for species under review. Seven of the eight Endangered Species Act decisions made by MacDonald were reversed by the Fish and Wildlife Service after her resignation a year ago. But the problems facing the agency predate Bush.




The Fish and Wildlife Service has been caught in a legal vice that has forced it to spend most of its time responding to lawsuits and following judges' orders on designating critical habitats rather than actively protecting species. The trouble began in 1997 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service should have designated critical habitat for the California gnatcatcher at the time the songbird was listed as endangered, in 1993.




Before the 1997 case came along, the priority had been to get animals and plants on the protected list. According to the agency, because the Endangered Species Act required the designation of critical habitat at the time of listing "to the maximum extent prudent," it was a "luxury" to be done only if it had the money and staff. The gnatcatcher decision, the agency told us, opened the floodgates to litigation because the court ruled that the agency had to designate habitat at the same time that it listed species. Hundreds of species were affected. Staff and budget had to be diverted from new listings of endangered species.




A decade later, the agency says that it still has 62 active cases and has received 21 notices of intent to sue. Yet things have gotten better. In 2002, Congress and the Bush administration created a separate budget for listing species. This has allowed the Fish and Wildlife Service to work through its backlog. The agency expects to propose listing determinations for 71 species in this fiscal year and another 21 in fiscal 2009. Imagine how much more could be accomplished if the Fish and Wildlife Service were guided by the expertise of its career scientists instead of the whims of political appointees or the priorities of lawyers and judges.




"" The Washington Post