Endangered Species List Riles Builders

Florida homebuilders want to know whether the eastern indigo snake -- the largest non-venomous snake in North America -- and green sea turtle still need to be on the federal endangered species list.

Florida homebuilders want to know whether the eastern indigo snake -- the largest non-venomous snake in North America -- and green sea turtle still need to be on the federal endangered species list.

Along with about 88 other plants and animals in Florida, builders say they have not been properly tracked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has failed to keep the list current. That, in turn, costs time and money for builders and developers who must comply with environmental restrictions based on that list.

If the service doesn't start reviewing the species list by October, then it's off to court.

Keith Hetrick, general counsel for the Florida Home Builders Association, said the goal is not to target the Fish and Wildlife Service, but to hold the federal government accountable to its own deadlines and promises. It sometimes takes one to three years to receive a development decision on the federal level, he said. Most often the delay is from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the Corps passes the blame to other agencies, like the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Depending on the property, builders need approvals from local, state and federal agencies before they can begin construction. At times, review by one agency cannot continue until approval is received from another. Hetrick said delays at any level are costly, but added that the homebuilders association won't compile any numbers on its delay costs unless it has to file the lawsuit.

"It's one arrow in the quiver to take a shot at Fish and Wildlife to do what they're supposed to do," Hetrick said. "There's no one solution to solve all these problems but you have to shoot in different directions."

If the reviews are kept current and permit decisions are returned in timely fashion, builders could work more efficiently, Hetrick said.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, a national non-profit group that champions property rights, said it will take the federal government to court on behalf of the homebuilders if the service does not begin a comprehensive review of the state's species on the federal list.

The lawsuit would be the first of its kind in Florida, but one of several the foundation has filed or threatened to file against the Fish and Wildlife Service across the country. Others include challenges against critical habitat designations and five-year status reviews in California.

By law, the service is supposed to conduct, at least once every five years, a review of all the species on the federal endangered species list to determine whether a plant or animal's protection status should be removed or changed.

Florida has the third highest number of listed species in the country, after Hawaii and California, according to the property rights group. In July, the service said it would review the status of 31 species in the western United States after the foundation filed suit for the review of nearly 200 California species.

"Any step in the right direction as far as getting them reviewed . . . is necessary and welcome just because of the sheer numbers," said Steven Gieseler, the Pacific Legal Foundation attorney in Miami working on the Florida complaint.

Gieseler said some plants and animals have been on the list since the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973. He said consistent five-year reviews of the list would ensure animals are protected as they should and that development is not unnecessarily impeded.

"We don't know if they should be taken off or if they need more protection. . . . We do believe some of these animals and plants are erroneously listed. But that benefit of the doubt should be held not only to those listings but also the review of the listings," Gieseler said.

Representatives of the Fish and Wildlife Service admit they have not complied completely with the mandate, but add that they are working on full compliance in the next few years.

"We're not denying that we haven't been [working] by the letter of the law," said Charles Underwood, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman in Jacksonville. "[But] all of our species in Florida are on schedule to be reviewed."

As of Tuesday, the service had not officially responded to the foundation's notice of intent to sue.

Jeff Fleming, who works with the service's Southeast Region, said the agency has kept track of some of the plants and animals protected by the Endangered Species Act through a separate recovery process.

"We do track the health of species on a regular basis, but the five-year review is a more formal process that we have to go through. We're looking at [developing] a more efficient way to do it," Fleming said.

Fleming said he doesn't think the lag in review has adversely affected people's ability to develop their property. He said regular review of the endangered species list would benefit both the service and the public.

Environmental activists oppose the Pacific Legal Foundation's "shotgun approach" to the problem.

"There's no question that there should be periodic review," said Mike Senatore, an attorney with the Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C. "But they seem to be throwing darts at a wall. . . . The Fish and Wildlife Service has been incredibly underfunded. The Endangered Species Act has been incredibly underfunded. It probably would be more productive . . . to go to Congress and lobby for money for the service."

Gieseler said the federal government should work within its own budget, just like other businesses.

"That money is there. Congress earmarks money every year for the ESA. The Fish and Wildlife Service should account for that in their own budget," he said.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News