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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Animals and plants that may deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act moved closer to getting help under a legal settlement plan announced on Tuesday by the government and environmentalists.
The plan, which followed a legal battle between the government and the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, aims to cut legal and bureaucratic red tape that has kept 251 species from being officially listed as endangered or threatened, clearing the way for government protection.
The main problem is the heavy flow of litigation by environmental groups and others asking for consideration of various types of wildlife under the Endangered Species Act, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said.
"In recent years, the Endangered Species Act listing program has been mired in litigation," Hayes said in a telephone briefing. "Priorities are being set by plaintiffs and courts instead of by wildlife professionals, by litigation instead of science."
As a result, 251 plant and animal species are classified as "warranted but precluded" from endangered species listing, because the Fish and Wildlife Service is dealing with higher priority matters, often dictated by court deadlines.
The candidates on the "warranted but precluded" list include birds, butterflies, mammals, fish, mollusks and wildflowers, the environmental group WildEarth Guardians said.
Species on this list range from the Miami blue butterfly and the Austin blind salamander to the Oregon spotted frog and the crimson Hawaiian damselfly.
WildEarth Guardians sued the government for what it said was a failure to list species as endangered or threatened in a timely manner. The plan announced jointly by the Interior Department and the group sets a six-year schedule for looking at these species and determining which ones are threatened, endangered or no longer in need of protection.
Filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., the settlement plan must be approved by a federal judge. The government then would agree to abide by the six-year timetable and WildEarth Guardians would agree to dismiss its lawsuits and refrain from suing the Interior Department over other missed deadlines for listing species for the next six years.
"Today's agreement will finally allow these species, that the government has repeatedly stated warrant protection, to have a decent chance at actually receiving that protection before they go extinct," Jay Tutchton of WildEarth Guardians said in a statement.
Of the 251 species considered "warranted but precluded," 150 have been waiting more than 20 years for a listing; 57 have been waiting more than 30 years, WildEarth Guardians said.
Hayes said part of the problem was the steeply increasing number of petitions for listing of endangered or threatened wildlife. There were about 17 of these petitions filed annually between 1994 and 2006, but since 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service has received 1,230 petitions, Hayes said.
There is a backlog of more than 600 petitions, and the proposed settlement would allow the government to work on clearing that, too.
Editing by Paul Simao