Stephen's kangaroo rat. Photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Services
Stephen’s kangaroo rat. Photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Services

The federal government denied a petition by several groups to have a prairie rat whose range includes parts of San Diego and Riverside counties removed from the Endangered Species List, it was announced Thursday.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Stephen’s kangaroo rat will retain protected status until it can be proven that the animal’s habitat is not under threat.

Wildlife Service spokeswoman Jane Hendron told City News Service that studies recently submitted to the agency did not contain “substantive new information” that would justify de-listing the rat.

“The Wildlife Service reviewed this most recent petition and found that habitat fragmentation and small population size — the only two issues included in the petition as the basis for de-listing the Stephens’ kangaroo rat — are still threats to the species,” Hendron said.

“In our 2010 finding, the Wildlife Service found that the species still faces numerous threats,” she added. “Habitat fragmentation and degradation, predation, small population size and encroachment of non-native species are among the threats we identified.”

Earlier this month, the San Francisco-based Pacific Legal Foundation sued the USFWS on behalf of the Riverside County Farm Bureau and the Fresno- based Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability, alleging that the government had failed to respond to the groups’ petition for a review of the rat’s endangered listing on a timely basis.

The groups submitted findings that the animal’s numbers and territory had reached levels that no longer justify granting it protected status. The rat, prevalent in Riverside and San Diego counties, received its endangered designation in 1988.

“It is a serious matter when regulators continue listing a species in the face of new evidence that shows the listing is scientifically unfounded,” said PLF attorney Christopher Kieser.

“Endangered Species Act listings trigger regulatory restrictions on people’s lives and their freedom to make legitimate, productive use of their property,” he said. “When these restrictions lack justification in sound science, property owners and the general public are essentially penalized for no legitimate reason, and the integrity and credibility of environmental regulations are subverted.”

The lawsuit noted that the federal government was required by law to respond to the de-listing petition within 90 days. That deadline was exceeded by six months when the PLF sued in U.S. District Court.

Kieser told CNS that the legal action was annulled by the Wildlife Service’s decision to keep the rat on the protected list.

“We will be conferring with our clients to determine what our next step will be,” he said.

— City News Service