For years, the Interior Department has watched over "endangered" and "threatened" species, protected "migratory birds" and restocked bodies of water with fish. Now it has a new category: "national species of special emphasis," or 67 kinds of animals and one plant group that it thinks deserve particular attention.
While agency officials say the designation is simply for planning and budgetary purposes, environmentalists are concerned that it will tend to promote hunting and fishing at the expense of truly endangered species.
Under the program, a new Office of the National Planning Coordinator will manage the popular gamefish and gamebirds, as well as coyotes and endangered species such as the bald eagle, sea otter and grizzly bear and the lone plant to make the list, an endangered group of cactus.
"We are doing this because there are too many subagencies concerned with only part of the total picture," said Jon M. Andrew, a staffer in the new office.
But Sumner Pingree, fish and wildlife specialist for the Wilderness Society, said the plan will give "special attention to those species that are of interest to sportsmen" such as the mallard duck and the Atlantic salmon.
Pingree noted that Interior last year considered seeking congressional authorization to set priorities among species that were either on the endangered species list or being considered for designation. "What they've done here," he said, "is to invent a new category to get around the office of endangered species."
"Although they say this is an internal planning system, it's all going to have an effect on where the money goes," Pingree said. "When you give to one area, in these tight budgetary times, you take from another area."
Robert P. Davison, a legislative representative of the National Wildlife Federation, said of the new program, "I don't think it is a sound way to manage wildlife or to preserve endangered species."
In a Federal Register notice last Friday, Robert A. Jantzen, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the species were selected from among those identified by the service's regional offices "using several biological, political, social and economic criteria."
Jantzen said the service considered such factors as a species' "population decline or threatened or endangered status; conflicts in use or demand among different constituent groups, public agencies, states or nations; and degree of public interest and economic value."
Andrew said that by including a particular game bird on the list, "the agency can take a unified look at whether hunting should be curtailed or increased, depending on the bird's population."
But Davison, of the wildlife federation, said, "I don't see a compelling need to focus management efforts on the mallard duck. There are plenty of them. And the wood duck--that's already had its population restored through efforts of the Interior Department over the years."
"Whether there are plenty of them or not, the service has a responsiblity to manage them effectively," said John Murphy, an administrator in the Office of Endangered Species.
Pingree contended, "It seems to me they're going to play out a political decision to target high-visibility species--the more common candidates for protection -- that will have an impact on the others. Congress isn't going to like it."
The decision, however, is not subject to direct congressional review.