- Associated Press - Thursday, September 29, 2011

BILLINGS, Mont. — The Obama administration is taking steps to extend new federal protections to a list of imperiled animals and plants that reads like a manifest for Noah’s ark — from the melodic golden-winged warbler and slow-moving gopher tortoise, to the slimy American eel and tiny Texas kangaroo rat.

Compelled by a pair of recent legal settlements, the effort in part targets species that have been mired in bureaucratic limbo even as they inch toward potential extinction. With a Friday deadline to act on more than 700 pending cases, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already has issued decisions advancing more than 500 species toward potential new protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Observers said the agency’s actions mark a breakthrough for a program long criticized by conservatives and liberals alike as cumbersome and slow. But most of the decisions made under the new settlements are preliminary, and key Republicans vowed Thursday to press forward with their plans to put the brakes on a law they blame for jeopardizing economic growth.

Still, said Patrick Parenteau, an environmental law professor at the Vermont Law School, “Here at a single glance, you see the sweep of the Endangered Species Act. They are moving through this large backlog at a fairly crisp clip now. This is the largest number of listing actions we’ve seen in a very long time, in decades.”

The flurry of recent action could help revive President Obama’s standing among wildlife advocates upset over the administration’s support for taking gray wolves off the endangered list in the Northern Rockies and Upper Great Lakes, among other issues.

It also could set the stage for a new round of disputes pitting conservation against development. In the Southeast, for example, water supplies already stretched thin could be further limited by constraints resulting from a host of new fish, salamanders, turtles and other aquatic creatures eligible for protections.

In response to the administration’s decisions under the settlements, Republicans including Rep. Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, repeated their call to overhaul the 37-year-old endangered act. The Washington state lawmaker is planning hearings this fall into what he characterizes as the law’s failure.

“The ESA is unfortunately now used as a tool in costly lawsuits where politics trump science and jobs and economic prosperity are put in jeopardy,” Mr. Hastings said Thursday.

Earlier this year, citing restrictions against development and other activities, GOP lawmakers unsuccessfully sought to strip the federal budget of money to list new species as threatened or endangered. The administration is seeking $25 million for the listing program in 2012, an 11 percent increase.

No projections were available for how much it would cost if hundreds more species were listed as threatened or endangered.