Vitter suspicious of 'secret' conservation settlement

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) is renewing his charge that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is using secret talks to develop regulations protecting endangered species. 

Vitter argues the agency is using a 2011 court settlement with conservation groups to issue new regulations. The agreement speeds up the agency's review of whether to put hundreds of plants and animals on the endangered species list by 2018.

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Vitter was irritated Wednesday by the agency's contention that it could not release most information about the case to him.

“There’s been an awful lot of controversy surrounding the Administration’s decision to enter a closed-door settlement agreement that could put 250 new species on the endangered species list. This response only furthers the suspicion that the secret settlement may have been irrational at best and nefarious at worst,” Vitter said in a statement.

Vitter added that the Fish and Wildlife Service “is attempting to create a brand new loophole to keep their settlements secret from the public and from Congress, but I’d like to remind them of the commitment to be the most transparent administration in history.”

In a letter to Vitter released on Wednesday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said that “the vast majority” of the correspondence about the court agreement was confidential, and could not be released to the public. 

Vitter argues that negotiations about the settlement deserve public scrutiny, since the endangered species regulations may affect people who own property where the species live.

Republicans and other conservatives have accused the agency of using “sue and settle” tactics to trigger new endangered species regulations without being transparent.

Under the process, wildlife conservation groups sue the government for not meeting legal deadlines. In response, the agency can enter into agreements to speed up review of plant and animal species on a set timetable.

Conservation advocates say that suing the regulator is their last resort to make sure that the agency complies with the letter of the law.

-- This story was updated for clarity on Oct. 31.