Agreement could hasten endangered species designations

PHOENIX - With barely a half-acre of waist-deep water near the U.S.-Mexico border as its only habitat remaining in the U.S., the Sonoyta mud turtle is struggling to survive in one of Arizona's driest regions.

Threatened by years of drought and increased human encroachment, the turtle has been listed since 1997 as a candidate for endangered status, which defines a species as warranted for protection but precluded from listing under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which makes the designation based on a species' priority for protection under the act, has yet to move this turtle up the list.

But under a September federal court agreement between the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and the agency, species such as this Arizona turtle now have established deadlines for the agency to evaluate whether they should in fact be listed as endangered.

All determinations must now be accomplished by 2018, essentially expediting the process for more than 750 threatened species throughout the U.S., including 31 plants and animals in Arizona.

The settlement sets a schedule for the evaluation of each species, with some determinations required by as early as next year. For the Sonoyta mud turtle, the evaluation must be complete by 2016.

Fast-tracking this review process is a necessary step toward protecting plants and animals from extinction, according to Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the center.

"We are convinced that we are in an extinction crisis," he said. "We are losing species very fast. It indicates the overall health and quality of our environment."

Greenwald said there are many species that aren't receiving the necessary protection in a timely manner. He said 24 species throughout the U.S. have gone extinct since they were placed on an endangered species candidate list.

"The main point for us is that we're glad to see that these species are starting to get the protection they deserve," he said. "Delays can make a difference."

But according to Jeff Humphrey, spokesman for the Arizona Ecological Services Field Office under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, immediate action by the federal government isn't always necessary.

He said land owners are often more willing to work with state-level organizations such as the Arizona Game and Fish Department to develop conservation agreements without the threat of regulatory action, "instead of bringing down the Endangered Species Act hammer."

"The ultimate goal is to recover species, so if we can do that prior to listing that's our preference," Humphrey said. "We can do much of this with people voluntarily up front, when a species is a candidate."

Humphrey said the agency was eager to reach an agreement with the center to "slow the litigation circle," which he said prevents agencies from effectively regulating and managing threatened species.

According to Tim Tibbitts, a wildlife biologist with Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where the Sonoyta mud turtle lives in Quitobaquito Spring, agreements between state and federal agencies have helped stave off extinction of the species without regulations imposed under the Endangered Species Act.

Eric Gardner, nongame branch chief for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said successful conservation programs throughout the state have been in place for 30 years.

"Our internal analysis is that not much is going to change with Arizona species," Gardner said. "We're just partnering with the Fish and Wildlife Service as we work through the timeline of this settlement."

He said the agency believes it can accomplish more with conservation at the state level when species are not listed as endangered.