Ken Salazar sued by conservation group crying fowl over the Sprague's Pipit

A prominent wildlife conservation group is suing Secretary of the Interior (and former Colorado Senator) Ken Salazar for reportedly failing to protect a prairie song bird that many say is nearing extinction.

In the recently filed federal lawsuit (click here to read it), WildEarth Guardians says Salazar has not fulfilled his duties under the Endangered Species Act by failing to decide whether or not to add an animal to the endangered or threatened list within twelve months of receiving a petition.

The group claims Salazar and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have failed to meet the deadline after a petition was filed in October 2008 to provide protections for the Sprague's Pipit, a brown bird indigenous to the West that is four to six inches in length and weighs less than an ounce.

Guardians says the small bird is "imperiled" by a degradation of native grasslands -- nearly one billion acres extended from northern Mexico, through the U.S. and into Canada -- and is believed to have decreased in population by 80 percent. The Sprague's Pipit is one of the most rapidly dying songbirds in North America, the group claims.

The bird is currently considered vulnerable, one rung below "endangered," according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List, a Switzerland-based environmental watchdog group.

In December 2009, U.S. Fish and Wildlife released what is commonly known as a ninety-day finding that concurred with the Guardians' claim that the pipit should be listed as an endangered species. But that scientific review was only the first step in a long process to actually add the bird to the list and to take measures to protect its natural habitat.

"To ensure this review is comprehensive, the Service is soliciting information from state and federal natural resource agencies and all interested parties regarding the Sprague's Pipit and its habitat," the agency said in a press release in 2009.

But the bird cannot officially be considered endangered -- therefore mandating protective measures to conserve the species -- without an ultimate finding by Salazar or, under his purview, Fish and Wildlife. In its lawsuit, the 4,500-member Guardians, a group well-represented in Colorado, seek a decision from Salazar regarding the Sprague Pipit's status.

"The listing process is the critical first step in the ESA's system of species protection and recovery," the suit says. "FWS must also list the species' habitat as 'critical habitat' in order for it to receive several important substantive and procedural ESA protections."