LOS ANGELES - Alarmed by a ban on listing endangered species, environmental groups are offering to delay some legal action if federal officials add imperiled animals and plants to the list.
Environmentalists, who released a report Wednesday calling on President George W. Bush to abandon a proposal that would weaken the Endangered Species Act, said desperation led them to offer the stopgap agreement to Interior Secretary Gail Norton this month.
"There are species out there that could literally be extinct in a month or two," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. For example, the Mississippi gopher frog's habitat has shrunk to a single pond that itself is shrinking; National Guard units have been pumping water to keep the species alive.
The center, Defenders of Wildlife and two other environmental groups are offering to allow what effectively would be extensions of court-ordered deadlines for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish critical habitat for endangered plants and animals.
Suckling said the groups may allow reprieves of six months or a year. He wouldn't say which species are being offered up for delays.
In exchange, the agency would agree to list some of the most imperiled animals and plants, possibly including the gopher frog, the Aleutian sea otter and the Miami blue butterfly.
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Hugh Vickery said money that isn't spent on lawyers could be spent for biologists to study species that need protection.
"We're desperate to try to get species on the list," Vickery said, especially 37 species already proposed for listing.
Fish and Wildlife banned almost all new listings in November. This month it added one species to the list - the Ventura marsh milkvetch - because most of the work had already been completed. A court order will require the agency to add another species, the yellow billed cuckoo, in July, Vickery said.
Vickery said money is tight because environmentalists have been "clogging the works" with lawsuits demanding critical habitat for listed species. When the government declares an area to be critical habitat for a species, Fish and Wildlife biologists must be consulted for any work requiring federal approval.
There are 200 court orders to establish critical habitat, active lawsuits seeking critical habitat for 356 species and notices of intent to sue over critical habitat for 306 species, Vickery said.
Wednesday's report, written by the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, said the problem is not too many lawsuits, but too little money.
Scientist Jane Goodall, actors and seven environmental groups unveiled the report at a press conference Wednesday as they called on Bush to expand funding and to abandon a proposal that would restrict the public's ability to sue for more species protections.