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Thursday, August 30, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ecologists, Bush make surprise deal

WASHINGTON — In a surprising collaboration, the Bush administration and some of the nation's most litigious environmentalists announced an agreement yesterday to expedite protection of 29 of the nation's most imperiled plants and animals.

Including rare mammals, birds, fish, snails and butterflies, the species range from the Pacific Northwest to southern Florida, some of them in areas where such protection has sparked bitter battles. In Washington state, the agreement would mean help for two creatures — pygmy rabbits of the Columbia Basin and coastal cutthroat trout — and a plant, Spalding's catchfly herb.

The pact startled some conservationists and development groups because it was drawn up by parties who normally meet in courtrooms, not at a negotiating table.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton has been viewed with suspicion by environmentalists who believe she supports efforts by property-rights groups and industry to weaken the Endangered Species Act. By contrast, the four environmental groups that helped craft the agreement repeatedly have sued to force the government to enforce the act.

"I am pleased that we have been able to cooperate and find common ground that will allow us to protect these species under the Endangered Species Act," Norton said. "I hope this can be a model for future agreements."

Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups involved in the agreement, called it a model.

"With so many plants and animals on the brink of extinction," she said, "it is imperative that environmental groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work together to bring them back."

The other groups are the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, the California Native Plant Society and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation.

Some think the agreement, which needs a federal judge's approval to take effect, could represent a new direction for Washington officials and environmental groups.

"It seems to me to mark the beginning of what we've needed for a long time, which is a serious dialogue among all the parties involved in endangered-species protection about what our priorities should be," said David Wilcove, senior ecologist at the group Environmental Defense and a well-known endangered-species expert.

At the heart of the deal is an agreement by the environmentalists to delay demands that the federal government meet certain legal requirements of the act. That would free $588,000 so that federal biologists could focus on saving the most imperiled species that probably need federal protection but have been lost in a mammoth backlog caused in part by a blizzard of lawsuits.

Under the agreement, three species might be rushed onto the endangered-species list:

• In Washington state, the Columbia Basin population of pygmy rabbits has plummeted, and fewer than 50 such rabbits remain. They are threatened by lost habitat, disease and predators.

• In Missouri, the Tumbling Creek cavesnail lives in a single cave, its numbers dropping 82 percent from 1973 to 1995, an apparent victim of worsening water quality.

• In California and Nevada, a butterfly called the California wandering skipper has shrunk to two small populations, its habitat damaged by agriculture, livestock grazing and development.

The agreement calls for the Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether to place 14 more species on the endangered- species list and whether to propose eight more for listing. Environmentalists said they are confident those species are so threatened that they will gain protection under the Endangered Species Act once the Fish and Wildlife Service is able to turn its attention to them.

Among them:

• Coastal cutthroat trout of Washington and Oregon, nearly extinct in two rivers and facing habitat loss, hatcheries and over-harvesting.

• Spalding's catchfly herb of Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington and British Columbia, a carnation dwindling because of habitat loss and trampling by livestock.

• The Gila chub of New Mexico and Arizona, a small fish already the subject of a lawsuit.

• The Ohlone tiger beetle of California, found only in Santa Cruz County and thinning because of urban growth and nonnative vegetation.

• San Diego ambrosia of Southern California, a perennial threatened by highway construction and trampling by horses and humans.

• The mountain yellow-legged frog of Southern California, mysteriously disappearing from 99 percent of its former habitat possibly because of predation by trout introduced to the area or by air pollution.

• The Buena Vista Lake ornate shrew of California, of which only about 40 have been sighted, near Bakersfield. It is endangered by agriculture, altered stream use and possible selenium poisoning.

• The Chiricahua leopard frog of Arizona and New Mexico, populations few and scattered and threatened by loss of wetlands and disease.

• The scaleshell mussel of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, found in 13 streams along the Mississippi River Basin and facing poor water quality, sand and gravel quarrying, reservoir construction and river dredging.

• The vermilion darter of Alabama, a fish 3 inches long and surviving in seven miles of creeks in Jefferson County because of altered stream use and pollutant.

• The golden sedge of North Carolina, limited to two counties and endangered by industrial development, mining and agriculture.

• Holmgren milk-vetch and Shivwits milk-vetch herbs of Utah and Arizona, found in two counties and disturbed by urban growth, off-road vehicles and grazing.

• Four freshwater snails in New Mexico.

The agency also promised to issue findings within a year on four other species that groups have petitioned to have listed as endangered or threatened and their critical habitats defined.

"All of us think this agreement is pretty remarkable," said Patrick Leonard, chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service's listings branch in Washington.

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