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Bush Revises Endangered Species Protection

December 12, 2008

On Thursday, the Bush administration issued revised endangered species regulations to reduce the input of federal scientists and block the law from being used to fight global warming.

The changes were completed in just four months and will go into effect in about 30 days.  They could take Obama much longer to reverse.

Some of the mandatory, independent reviews that government scientists have performed for 35 years on dams, power plants, timber sales and other projects, will be eliminated.

Also prohibited are federal agencies evaluating the effect on endangered species and the places they live from a project’s contribution to increased global warming.

The regulations are said to be controversial inside the agency, and environmentalists view them as eroding the protection for endangered species.

Federal agencies could seek the expertise of federal wildlife biologists on a voluntary basis, and other parts of the law will ensure that species are protected.

“Nothing in this regulation relieves a federal agency of its responsibilities to ensure that species are not harmed,” said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in a conference call with reporters.

The current rules require biologists in the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to sign off on projects even when it is determined that they are not to harm species.  The new rule reduces the number of consultations so that the government’s experts can focus on cases that pose the greatest harm to wildlife, officials said.

Environmentalists are afraid that this new decision puts control in the hands of agencies with vested interest in advancing a project and little expertise about wildlife.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service and a vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, said Thursday that the changes target the “absolute heart of the Endangered Species Act.” Clark told a House hearing on the Bush administration’s last-minute environmental regulations that these changes remove “a system of checks and balances that provides an essential safety net for imperiled animals and plants.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service conducted 300,000 consultations between 1998 and 2002.  The National Marine Fishers Service, which evaluates projects affecting marine species, conducts about 1,300 reviews each year.

Protected species are helped safeguarded by the reviews, species such as bald eagles, Florida panthers and whooping cranes.  The federal government handbook from 1998 described the consultations as “some of the most valuable and powerful tools to conserve listed species.”

The Bush administration worked hard to get the change in before Obama took over, using 15 experts in Washington in October to sort through 250,000 written comments from the public on the revisions in 32 hours.

Obama said he would reverse the changes, but because the rule takes effect before he is sworn in, it will take longer.  Nick Rahall, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep., said he would see to overturn the regulations using the Congressional Review Act after consulting with other Democratic leaders.  The rarely used law allows Congress to review new federal regulations.

Similar changes have been opposed by congress to the endangered species protections in the past.

The Bush administration imposed similar rules in 2003 that would allow agencies to approve new pesticides and wildfire reduction projects without seeking the opinion of government scientists.  The Interior Department, along with Forest Service, is being sued currently over the rule governing wildfire prevention.

The House passed a bill in 2005 that would have made similar changes to the Endangered Species Act, but the bill died in the Senate.

James Inhofe, Oklahoma Senator and the leading Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, said the regulations were “commonsense changes to a law much overdue for reform.”

There are a handful of other environmental changes pending before Bush leaves office, including rules to exempt large agricultural operations from reporting releases of ammonia and other hazardous air pollutants.

Also finalized Thursday, the Interior Department made a special rule for the polar bear, a species that was listed as threatened in May because of global warming, allowing oil and gas exploration in areas where the bears live, as long as companies comply with Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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