Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
PORTLAND — A federal judge has given the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until the end of June 2015 to decide whether to extend Endangered Species Act protection to the Leona’s little blue butterfly, a rare species found only in Oregon’s Klamath County.
U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman has given the agency more time than was requested by environmental groups, but he said it would be a hard deadline.
“I don’t expect to see any requests for extensions,” Mosman said on July 15. “I expect the agency to pay adequate attention to this case, which has been languishing.”
The Xerces Society and other groups asked the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 to extend federal protection to the species, which occupies a small patch of private property east of Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park.
In 2011, the agency agreed with the groups that listing the butterfly as threatened or endangered was warranted but did not make a final listing decision within a year, as required by the Endangered Species Act.
The environmental groups filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the agency to take action, but officials said their decision was delayed by other court-ordered processes for numerous other species.
During oral arguments on July 15, an attorney for the plaintiffs argued the Fish and Wildlife Service should not need much more time to arrive at a decision, given how much is known about the butterfly.
“It’s not a spotted owl or a polar bear. It’s a species with a very narrow geographic range,” said Christopher Winter, attorney for the plaintiffs. “The universe of science (about the butterfly) is very narrow and limited.”
Winter said the agency should be ordered to decide within three months, but the groups were willing to compromise for late March 2015.
The agency has made several “incremental delays” in recent years while the butterfly faces threats from forest fires, the intrusion of lodgepole pine onto its prairie habitat and the possibility of land ownership changing hands, he said.
“We’re concerned about these adding up over time,” Winter said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service countered that it is committed to working through backlogs of petitions to list various species in legal settlements with other environmental groups.
Biologists and bureaucrats with the agency have also faced limited resources and strict budget oversight that hindered their ability to timely make listing decisions, attorneys for the government argued.
Whether or not the butterfly is listed, firefighters would take the same actions to protect its habitat if wildfires erupt in the area this summer, said Jeremy Hessler, attorney for the government.
“There is no prejudice that will befall this species” if the agency is given more time to study it, he said.
Judge Mosman said he was concerned about delays, which are generally the fault of government agencies.
In this case, however, the Fish and Wildlife Service had to contend with financial constraints as well as an uptick in listing petitions, he said.
Mosman said he would give the agency more time than requested by the environmentalists because he doesn’t want officials to “stiff someone else just to honor my order.”