April 26 — The U.S. government settled a suit with an environmental group Tuesday, promising to rule whether two plant species found only in the U.S. Virgin Islands should be placed under federal protection.
Fewer than 50 specimens of Agave eggersiana, an aloe-like plant that grows up to 25 feet tall and has small pink flowers, are left in their only known habitat, St. Croix, said Peter Galvin, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.
Fewer than 200 Solanum conocarpum, a bushy plant with small purple and yellow flowers, remain on St. John, he said.
The lawsuit filed in September in U.S. District Court in Atlanta argued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated federal law by taking more than eight years to decide whether the plants should be federally protected. U.S. law says the process should take no longer than a year, with few exceptions. (See "Court Case Initiated to Save V.I. Endangered Species").
"We are pleased that this legal settlement will speed up the protection process for these two rare plant species," Galvin said. "We are especially grateful to the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources for recognizing the grave threats these species face and submitting the original petition to protect these rare plants under the Endangered Species Act."
Poor funding has resulted in a huge backlog of requests to add species to protection lists, an Atlanta Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said when the suit was filed. The Atlanta office oversees the southeastern United States and the U.S. Caribbean territories.
As part of the settlement, the U.S. government promised to rule whether to protect the plants by February 28, 2006, said Ben Porritt, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department in Washington.
"Sadly, due to the inaction of the federal government, numerous species have gone extinct while awaiting protection under the Endangered Species Act. We hope this settlement will help ensure these plants do not suffer the same fate," Galvin said.
The plants are so endangered that a hurricane could wipe them out. Stray goats and donkeys could also eat them into extinction, he said.
Park officials have started removing stray goats and donkeys from the national park in St. John.
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