WildEarth Guardians alleges that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has failed to act on petitions seeking protection for 681 species across a dozen Western and Midwestern states.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court in Washington, D.C., contends that many of the species - ranging from butterflies and snails to grasshoppers and cactuses - could face extinction if action isn't taken.
"In a world that's bombarded by climate change, pollution, habitat destruction and human over-population, clearly few of our rare species are going to be secure in the long term," Nicole Rosmarino, director of WildEarth Guardians' wildlife program, said Monday. "That's the basis for the petition."
WildEarth Guardians is asking a judge to order Kempthorne to review species outlined in the petition and issue preliminary findings on whether they warrant becoming candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
It's been nearly two years since a domestic species has been listed under the Endangered Species Act, but Fish and Wildlife Service director Dale Hall said his agency has made progress on a backlog that stems from years of litigation and will begin moving quickly on decisions.
The Interior Department referred questions about the lawsuit to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Valerie Fellows, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman in Washington, said Monday she had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.
Each year, the agency reviews species recommended for protection under the act. It can decide whether a species remains on the candidate list, is removed or warrants endangered species protection.
Hall testified before a House committee last month that his agency would make decisions on 71 species this year and 21 species next year.
Rosmarino said many of the 282 species on the candidate list have languished there for years without any real protection. She said that out of the decisions to be made this year, only one - the polar bear - will involve a final determination and that it has been more than three years since conservation groups first petitioned for that animal's listing.
"We think it is smoke and mirrors. It's basically sound and fury signifying nothing from this administration," Rosmarino said.
WildEarth Guardians contends more than half the creatures on the list are in the most urgent category but fewer than a third of them will be addressed in Hall's plan.
Conservation groups have alleged the Bush administration has been dragging its feet on listing actions to appease big money interests. Interior Department spokesman Hugh Vickery denied the accusations.
The Bush administration, Vickery said, should get credit for making it possible to do listings again by carving out money specifically for determining whether a species warrants protection.
"In my view, we are a lot closer now to having the program actually run the way the law suggests it should be run than we were 10 years ago," he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has the power to emergency list species, and Rosmarino said that's what it should do - especially in the case of such animals as the sand dune lizard, found only in a few small pockets of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas.
Fish and Wildlife biologists have received funding to begin work on a listing package for the lizard and expect to have it done within a year. But Rosmarino noted the lizard has been on the candidate list since 2001 and said it's being pushed closer to extinction every year.