June 26, 2023

Lawsuit alleges missed Endangered Species Act deadlines put animals in peril

Jim Stuart/New Mexico Department of Game and Fish

The Penasco least chipmunk is seen in this undated photo included in the species status assessment report.

Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, describes the Peñasco least chipmunk as “one of the most enchanting critters in our Land of Enchantment,” but warns that this tiny squirrel may disappear from the landscape forever if it does not receive protections soon.

In September of 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a notice in the Federal Register proposing listing the chipmunk subspecies as endangered. 

But, the Center for Biological Diversity alleges, the agency failed to finalize protections within a year as required by the Endangered Species Act. The advocacy group filed a lawsuit last week alleging the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by missing deadlines for finalizing protections for 13 species including the Peñasco least chipmunk.

The Center for Biological Diversity alleges President Joe Biden’s administration has consistently missed deadlines to list species under the Endangered Species Act and fewer species are receiving protections than under previous Democratic presidents.

Since Biden took office, about 11 species annually have received protections under the Endangered Species Act. 

Under President Barack Obama, an average of 36 species a year received federal protections and, under President Bill Clinton, that number was even higher—65 species annually received protections.

In addition to the chipmunk, the other species listed in the lawsuit include the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, the Texas fatmucket, the Guadalupe fatmucket, the Texas fawnsfoot, the Texas pimpleback, the Guadalupe orb, the false spike, the pyramid pigtoe, the Mt. Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan and four populations of the foothill yellow-legged frog. Six of those species are freshwater mussels.

The chipmunk is only found in the White Mountains of New Mexico and the Fish and Wildlife Service published a notice seeking public comment regarding listing the subspecies as endangered in September 2021. Prior to 1966, the chipmunk also roamed throughout the Sacramento Mountains, feeding on wild strawberries and gooseberries. The White Mountains are a spur of the larger Sacramento range.

Logging, livestock grazing, fire and climate change are among the threats the chipmunk faces.

Related: Chipmunk subspecies only found in the White Mountains could be listed as endangered

In 2020, researchers conducting a survey estimated only 44 Peñasco least chipmunks remain in the wild.

“The cute Peñasco least chipmunks and these freshwater mussels that help clean our rivers could disappear forever because the Fish and Wildlife Service is moving too slowly,” Robinson said in the press release. “We don’t expect the government to move with the speed of a chipmunk dashing up a tree, but with threats looming it’s long past time for these animals to get the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act.”