- Associated Press - Sunday, September 11, 2011

A federal judge on Friday approved a pair of sweeping settlements that require the government to consider endangered species protections for more than 700 animals and plants.

The order by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan means the government must act on imperiled species ranging from the northern wolverine and Pacific walrus to dozens of snails, mollusks, butterflies and plants. Some decisions could come by the end of the year and others by 2018.

It comes after the Obama administration reached deals with environmental groups that filed lawsuits challenging the government’s handling of more than 250 so-called “candidate species.” Those are animals and plants that scientists say are in dire need of protection but that the government has lacked resources to address.

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The agreements also cover hundreds of other species for which groups have filed legal petitions seeking protections. The government agreed to address those petitions, although there is no guarantee of new protections.

Some of the species have languished in bureaucratic limbo for decades.

Gary Frazer, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the affected species all face possible extinction without government intervention.

“These are species that are in trouble,” Mr. Frazer said. “Once a species has been listed, with a few exceptions, we have kept them from becoming extinct. This is an important step toward conservation of all these critters.”

The settlement comes as the government’s endangered species program has been under assault on Capitol Hill, where House Republicans submitted a proposed Interior Department budget that have would barred any new listings under the Endangered Species Act. That proposal was defeated in a rare bipartisan vote this summer.

Mr. Frazer said that current spending levels for the endangered program were sufficient to fulfill Friday’s settlement, and that he was hopeful the agency would have enough money in future years to honor commitments made under the agreements with two environmental groups — the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity and New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians.

Some plants and animals covered under the administration’s agreements were first proposed for protection soon after the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Government officials said the backlog was made worse by lawsuits and legal petitions that distracted wildlife agencies from needed scientific reviews and restoration work. Those legal actions have consumed money and staff time that could be spent on programs such as developing restoration plans for struggling plants and animals, officials said.

The deals signed by WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity require them to limit their future legal actions against the government.

The Safari Club, a hunting group, had attempted to intervene in the case in hopes of derailing the settlement, but Judge Sullivan issued a separate order Friday denying the request. Attorneys for the hunting group said they wanted to preserve the rights of its members to hunt animals covered under the agreements, including greater sage grouse and the New England cottontail rabbit.

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