CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Obama administration will no longer consider state boundaries when determining endangered species protections, a decision that could mean more protection for endangered species over wider areas, officials said Friday.
Under the previous policy, set by the Bush administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could require special protection for a species in one state but not in another, even though the species' habitat exists in both states.
The Bush policy resulted in situations like the case of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, which has contiguous habitat in Colorado and Wyoming.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 imposed protections for the mouse in Colorado but not in neighboring Wyoming. The reasoning then was that the mouse, which was listed as a threatened species in 1998, was not as threatened by development in Wyoming as in Colorado.
Environmental groups contend the mouse should be listed in Wyoming as well, and they hope the policy change results in restoring protection for the mouse in Wyoming.
U.S. Interior Department Solicitor Hilary Tompkins this week withdrew a legal opinion issued by her predecessor under President George W. Bush that permitted different levels of protections based on state boundaries. Tompkins cited recent federal court rulings in Montana and Arizona rejecting the policy in cases involving wolves and sage grouse.
"We weren't able to defend it," Susan Linner, supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Colorado field office, said Friday.
Jason Rylander, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said species don't recognize lines on a map and the Endangered Species Act should ensure the survival of threatened plants and animals across their entire biological range.
"When you have a small ranging species in essentially a similar geographic area, you can't get to recovery if you're if only protecting a portion of that population," Rylander said.
But Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said in a statement that there have to be "logical boundaries defining a species' range and at times a border is appropriate."
Mead said using selected court rulings "as justification for changing all endangered species management protocol is a serious misstep."
Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Diane Katzenberger said Friday that the change means the agency will no longer consider specific portions of a habitat separately from the whole during its analysis of threats to a species.
However, there's a question about what to do with endangered species decisions issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Bush policy.
"It hasn't been replaced by any new guidance," Linner said.
In the case of the jumping mouse, there is an unresolved lawsuit by environmental groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, to overturn the 2008 decision not to protect the mouse in Wyoming.
Linner said it's up to the attorneys for the government and the environmental groups to decide what to do about the lawsuit, given the change in the policy.
Katzenberger said the agency could not comment on active litigation.
Rylander said he hoped the policy change would lead to the Fish and Wildlife Service conceding in the lawsuit and restoring protections for the mouse in Wyoming. He said discussions among parties in the lawsuit are taking place but he declined to reveal details.