The New York Times reported that the number of petitions to list a species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) received by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has skyrocketed in recent years.

"Over the last four years, a few environmental groups have requested that more than 1,230 species be listed, compared with the previous 12 years in which annual requests averaged only 20 species."

(The New York Times, April 20, 2011, by Todd Woody.)  The increase from an average of 20 petitions to an average of more than 300 petitions is certain to tax the Service’s resources.  While the number of petitions has ballooned, the amount Congress has appropriated for listing activities has remained relatively stable.

In response, the Service (pdf) has asked Congress to establish a cap on the total amount of resources that are allocated to responding to listing petitions.  (See page ES-11.)  The Times reports that "[t]wo environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, have filed 90 percent of the listings petitions since 2007."  Environmental groups are divided regarding the wisdom of this approach, which involves flooding the Service with work that it cannot complete in a timely manner then suing the Service for failing to comply with statutory deadlines to respond to the flood of listing petitions.

Among the potential problems associated with the petition process is the concern that listing petitions may be submitted by entities with parochial interests.  As a result, there is a risk that listing priorities may be dictated by the flood of listing petitions rather than by a science-based assessment of which species would benefit most from the protections that accompany listing.