By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The U.S. government has until 2018 to decide whether to set aside critical habitat or provide other protections for hundreds of imperiled species, under an agreement approved on Friday by a federal judge.
The deal struck in July settles lawsuits by the Center for Biological Diversity accusing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of being too slow in assigning safeguards under the Endangered Species Act to various plants and animals faced with extinction.
"With approval of this agreement, species from across the nation will be protected," Noah Greenwald, the Arizona-based center's endangered species director, said in a statement.
Under the plan, the government would be required to take at least preliminary action by 2018 on 750 species of wildlife, insects and plants proposed for classification as threatened or endangered, or awaiting critical habitat designations if already listed.
The deal came after negotiations between the group and the government over timelines for evaluating creatures ranging from the American wolverine, a bear-like member of the weasel family that inhabits the mountains of the West, to the Pacific walrus, an outsize, tusked marine mammal that dwells in the Arctic.
The settlement addresses a backlog of 250 species the government says warrant protections but which have been placed on a waiting list behind species deemed of higher priority.
Some mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates have been on the so-called candidates list for decades. The agreement requires those animals to be approved or denied threatened and endangered species listing by the 2018 deadline.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton)