WASHINGTON Workers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service are so bogged down by lawsuits and other paperwork
they have little time for conservation or recovery of
endangered species, a report finds.
The report by the General Accounting Office also finds
that the agency lacks financial controls to ensure that
money targeted for endangered species programs is spent
lawfully. In at least two cases, the agency used money
from the endangered species program improperly to hire
law firms to respond to personnel problems, including
complaints of discrimination, the report says.
The new report, requested by the House Government Reform
Committee, says lawsuits challenging Fish and Wildlife's
designations of critical habitats are so commonplace
that workers now spend more than 50 percent of their
time on paperwork for litigation or attempting to avoid
By contrast, staffers in the agency's seven regional
offices spent just over a quarter of their time recovering
endangered species, one of the agency's top missions,
the report says.
The report blames the paperwork glut in part on unclear
guidelines that make it difficult for workers to designate
critical habitats that are not vulnerable to legal challenges.
The report recommends that the agency develop consistent
guidelines to reduce the number of lawsuits and allow
it to better defend decisions that are challenged.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the government
reform committee and a longtime Fish and Wildlife critic,
said the report shows environmental lawsuits are driving
the agency's agenda.
"It's no wonder private and federal land owners are
confused and frustrated by critical habitat regulations
and have asked for relief," Burton said. "The Fish and
Wildlife Service must immediately create comprehensive
national critical habitat standards ... based on common
sense, strict accountability and good science."
Spokesman Mitch Snow said Tuesday the agency did not
contest the findings of the GAO report and has frequently
made the same point in its budget requests. While the
amount of time spent on litigation is high, it is down
from several years ago when Fish and Wildlife had virtually
"no money at all to do anything but respond to lawsuits,"
The Fish and Wildlife Service said in November 2000
that it could add no more wildlife to the endangered
species list for at least a year because it must devote
so much time and money to defending environmental lawsuits.
In a written reply to the GAO report, Paul Hoffman,
deputy assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife
and parks, said the department agrees that better guidelines
are needed for designation of critical habitats. A draft
report with specific recommendations is expected this
fall, he said.
Barry Hill, director of the GAO's Natural Resources
and Environment division and an author of the report,
said Fish and Wildlife employees "are in a difficult
situation." Because of their workload and timeframes
set by the Endangered Species Act, employees have no
choice but to meet court-ordered deadlines, Hill said.
"Consultations, litigation and paperwork ... keep them
in the office and prevent them from doing as much field
work as they need to do and in fact are funded to do,"