Science & Environment

Group sues US over inaction to protect threatened species

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
April 2, 2021 1 p.m.

Decisions by the Trump administration to withhold endangered-species protections for the northern spotted owl, monarch butterflies and other imperiled wildlife and plants could be set aside.

That’s the goal of a conservation group’s lawsuit Thursday, challenging inaction on petitions to extend Endangered Species Act protections for several species that warranted them.

The northern spotted owl is on a slow but steady course toward extinction.

The northern spotted owl is on a slow but steady course toward extinction.

Todd Sonflieth / OPB

The Center for Biological Diversity claims the Trump administration knowingly kept 10 species that needed immediate ESA protections in waiting. All the species listed in the lawsuit were given “warranted but precluded” decisions, meaning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the species needed federal listing but did not have the resources to list them.

In addition to the spotted owl and the monarch butterfly, other species covered by the lawsuit are the eastern gopher tortoise, longfin smelt, magnificent ramshorn, Texas fatmucket, Texas pimple back, Texas fawnsfoot mussels, peñasco least chipmunk and the bracted twistflower.

“Continued delay of protections for 10 species, including the northern spotted owl and the monarch butterfly, is unlawful,” Center for Biological Diversity’s Endangered Species Director Noah Greenwald said. “This relates to the Trump administration’s just abysmal record on protecting species under the Endangered Species Act.”


Greenwald said the former administration only listed 25 species as either threatened or endangered over the course of four years. He said it is the lowest number of species that have been listed for federal protections since the law’s 1973 passage.

Greenwald said conservationists had reached an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Barack Obama to work through a backlog of 260 species that scientists and officials had determined to warrant protections under the Endangered Species but precluded them from the list of protected plants and animals. That backlog had been reduced but persisted into 2017, when Donald Trump entered the White House.

“And of course didn’t make a whole lot of progress on it,” he said.

Currently, the northern spotted owl’s status has been threatened since it was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. Its numbers in Pacific Northwest and Northern California forests continue to fall. Late last year, the Trump administration denied a petition to increase protections by “uplisting” its status to endangered. Then, in the final days before Trump left office in January, his administration moved to lift restrictions on logging and road-building on millions of acres of forests by removing critical habitat status that protected those forests in the name of the northern spotted owl’s survival.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether the iconic monarch butterfly should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether the iconic monarch butterfly should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.


Democratic lawmakers have called for a delay in stripping critical-habitat status for 3.4 million acres and an investigation into what, if any, scientific evidence exists to warrant the final-days decision. Conservation groups have gone to court to reverse the previous administration’s actions.

The timber industry has countered with a legal challenge against efforts to delay or overturn federal actions to strip away logging restrictions in place for spotted owl-designated habitat.

The monarch butterfly’s range in the West includes Washington and Oregon, reaching into the intermountain states to the east and south to the U.S. border with Mexico. In December, the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected a petition to invoke the Endangered Species Act for the butterfly, while acknowledging it merited endangered-species status. The monarch was first proposed for protections in 2014. The Western monarch butterflies have seen a drastic decline in their species and are on the brink of extinction, with more than 99% of their population having been wiped out.


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