BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The U.S. government agreed Tuesday to decide over the next several years if federal protections are needed to help a small, fanged predator of the Northern Rockies, massive alligator snapping turtles in the South and seven other troubled species that in some cases have awaited action for years.
Deadlines for the decisions were detailed in a legal settlement filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
The Center for Biological Diversity had sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March, alleging agency officials repeatedly missed previous deadlines despite determining protections may be warranted.
The settlement must be approved by Judge Emmet G. Sullivan before it goes into effect.
One of the first species to be decided on, by October 2017, is the Northern Rockies fisher. The cat-sized predator once ranged across at least five states. It's now limited to a much smaller area straddling the Montana-Idaho border.
Montana allows the trapping of seven fishers annually — activity banned elsewhere in the West.
"Alongside habitat loss, trapping is one of the primary threats to Northern Rockies fishers," said Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. She said federal protections "are the only way to curb this ongoing threat."
The Fish and Wildlife Service rejected protections for fishers in 2011, concluding that trapping by humans did not appear to be harming the overall population, though their precise numbers are unknown. But the agency agreed to take another look earlier this year after wildlife advocates provided details on fishers killed by trappers seeking other species.
That change followed a study that found the animals "are more vulnerable for survival than previously thought, and may still be impacted by trapping," Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Serena Baker said Tuesday. She said the species will be included in its upcoming endangered species list national workplan for a decision in fiscal year 2017.
Fishers remain relatively abundant in parts of the Midwest and New England.
A decision on the alligator snapping turtle is due in 2020. The hard-biting, spike-studded a turtle can grow to more than 2 feet long and top 200 pounds, making it North America's largest freshwater turtle.
Other species included in the settlement were the California spotted owl, an Alabama mussel called the Canoe Creek pigtoe and the Beaverpond marstonia, a tiny freshwater snail that advocates say is found only in one Georgia creek.
Two fish were included — the Virgin River spinedace, a desert minnow once common in the Virgin River basin in northwestern Arizona, southeastern Nevada and southwestern Utah, and the Barrens topminnow in Tennessee's Barrens Plateau.
There was one amphibian, the foothill yellow-legged frog, once found from Oregon to possibly as far south as Baja California, Mexico, and an insect, the cobblestone tiger beetle, which survives only in handful of rivers from New England to Alabama.
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