Deadline Approaches for Hundreds of Endangered Species Decisions

If the Florida bog frog had fingernails, it might be biting them right now. Today marks the deadline for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to decide the initial status of this yellow-throated amphibian and nearly 300 other species under the Endangered Species Act.

Today's deadline stems from a July settlement between the U.S. Department of the Interior and several prominent environmental groups, including the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. The center had filed a number of lawsuits alleging that FWS had failed to act in a timely manner on hundreds of petitions to grant species endangered status. To resolve the issue, the agency agreed to set deadlines between 2011 and 2018 to move forward on listing decisions for 757 plants and animals.

That's a big deal, many endangered species advocates say: "With this agreement we're starting to get on the path to recognizing all of those species that need protection," says Noah Greenwald, director of the endangered species program at the center.

Like many of these potentially struggling species, the bog frog, which hops around river drainages in northern Florida, won't be up for endangered or threatened status-and, hence, federal protection-just yet. Instead, FWS will be weighing in on whether the petition to list this bumpy creature merits a deeper look, what's termed a 90-day finding.

The frog's entire cohort, however, hasn't been left in such suspense: FWS has already acted on more than 400 species, including 374 wetland and river-dwelling plants and animals from the southeastern United States, which the agency cleared earlier this week to advance in the listing process. Next, these organisms will face an even more in-depth review, which will weigh the science and decide just how threatened they are with extinction.

Endangered species advocates shouldn't celebrate just yet, says Fred Cheever, an environmental lawyer at the University of Denver, Colorado: "It's important to understand that no one has agreed to list these species," he says. Instead, the settlement merely directs feds to review the evidence for and against listing species like the bog frog, whose habitats have been filling up with dirt and mud due to upstream development. Actually granting endangered or threatened status has been a "lightning rod" for political fights, he adds. Earlier this year, for instance, some members of Congress tried to block FWS from listing new species under the Endangered Species Act in 2012 in an interior spending bill. That provision was, however, overturned on a bipartisan vote last July.

Still, the settlement has been a boon for some species, including a tiny fish called the chucky madtom. This blotchy catfish relative, which inhabits slow moving streams in Tennessee, is so rare that scientists have only caught 15 since 1940. And in August, FWS declared this several-inch-long swimmer, which is included in the recent agreement, endangered along with four other local fish species. The bog frog may be hoping to pick up some of its mojo.