DENVER | When WildEarth Guardians filed two petitions in the space of a month to list 681 species under the Endangered Species Act, it came as a shock to biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Organizations normally seek protection for just one animal or plant at a time. The Center for Native Ecosystems, another group active in petitioning under the Endangered Species Act, has filed requests involving 27 species over the last 10 years.
So the filing of nearly 700 offerings at once struck federal officials as excessive. The Endangered Species Act requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to make and publish specific findings for petitioned species within 90 days, to the extent practicable.
"This was not envisioned by the [act] and it's not helpful to us at all because it takes an enormous amount of resources to look at this," said Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ann Carlson. "Very few of those [in the petition] need our help, and it's taking away from the species that do need our help."
The massive filings came under fire on several fronts. Federal biologists argued that flooding the agency with petitions for hundreds of species at once wasn't what Congress had in mind when it enacted the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Moreover, they said, it's not in the best interest of endangered wildlife.
Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, said the massive filing was necessary to protect species that have recently "slipped through the cracks."
She cited the Clinton administration's removal of 2,000 species from its candidate rolls in 1996.
"It's a big deal, a very big deal for us," said Ms. Carlson, who was in charge of conducting administrative reviews on 206 of the species filed in July 2007 with the agency's Mountain-Prairie regional office in Denver. Petitions on behalf of 475 other species had been filed a month earlier with the Southwest regional office in New Mexico.
The agency in August approved 29 of the 206 species for further comment and review, which ultimately could result in threatened or endangered listings. The 475-species petition is still under review.
What touched off the filings on behalf of nearly 700 species, Ms. Rosmarino said, was the scandal surrounding former Fish and Wildlife official Julie MacDonald. A Bush administration appointee, Ms. MacDonald was found to have violated agency policies on tampering with scientific data and improperly removing species and habitats from the endangered species list.
Ms. MacDonald resigned in May 2007, shortly before WildEarth Guardians submitted its glut of petitions.
"We wrote in our petitions that we've become frustrated with the process where we spend enormous resources to show a species deserves protection, and they still refuse to list," Ms. Rosmarino said. "In a way, it was us throwing up our hands, but also our way of pointing out that there are so many species with no protection. ... And I think Fish and Wildlife needs to answer for that."
The group also has come under fire for the quality of its petitions.
Virtually all the data submitted in support of the species come from NatureServe, a Web site that serves as a clearinghouse for information on endangered wildlife and plants. Some submissions rely on unpublished reports, or reports that date back two decades, thus calling into question the relevance of the data. Many species are so obscure that they have only a scientific name and not a common name.
"Usually we get one species with substantive information that allows us to learn something," Ms. Carlson said. "In this case, we got 206 species with very little information on any."
Still, that didn't make the process any easier.
"You would think that it would be a quick process, but it's not. We have to look at whatever citations are provided. We spent an enormous amount of time just trying to find the citations," she said.
One example was a tiger moth, listed as Arctia sp. 1, with no common name or species name.
"The NatureServe file for this species only states that it is found in Colorado. The file provides no references," according to the Feb. 5 Federal Register report.
Ms. Rosmarino argued that the information provided by NatureServe was "thoroughly researched" and included hundreds of citations.
She also pointed out that NatureServe has been recognized by the Fish and Wildlife Service as "a source for authoritative conservation information," according to the agency's Web site.
WildEarth Guardians petitioned on behalf of species considered "critically imperiled" or "imperiled" by NatureServe, she said.
"Fish and Wildlife says on its Web site that it considers NatureServe authoritative, so we said, 'We're going to proceed with a source you find authoritative,' " Ms. Rosmarino said.
Kent Holsinger, a Denver lawyer specializing in wildlife and property issues, noted that the NatureServe Web site includes the disclaimer "All documents and related graphics ... are provided 'as is' without warranty as to its currentness, completeness, or accuracy of any specific data."
"If the petitioners are relying on NatureServe, and NatureServe says don't rely on the data, I would argue that every species ought to have some independent, verifiable data, or shouldn't be considered," Mr. Holsinger said.
Could petitioning on behalf of hundreds of species at a time become a trend? The agency clearly hopes not.
"We're very concerned," Ms. Carlson said. "I'm not sure what they're thinking, but we've tried to convince them this is not a productive way to get species listed."