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Endangered Species Act in Peril

ProPublica, November 11, 2008

California Attorney General Demands That Bush Halt Endangered Species Rule Change
By Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica

California Attorney General Jerry Brown has called on the Bush administration to abandon its proposed changes to rules in the Endangered Species Act in a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The changes could put "entire species and ecosystems at risk for complete destruction," Brown said in a statement to the media last week.

Brown sent a similar letter in mid-October, but his office said it was ignored. A few weeks later, the Department of the Interior concluded the rule changes would have no significant environmental impact, a claim Brown's latest letter rejects.

As we reported earlier this week, the Bush administration wants to alter many environmental rules before it leaves office.

One of the revisions Brown is concerned about would remove a requirement (PDF) that says scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service must evaluate how federally approved mining, logging and power plant projects might impact endangered species before the projects can begin.

Under Bush's revision, the federal agencies that issue permits for these projects would no longer have to send them to the Fish and Wildlife Service for review -- instead they could determine on their own whether the projects would harm surrounding wildlife.

"This rule change will literally remove thousands of projects from scientific review," said Noah Greenwald, the biodiversity program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group that opposes the rule.

The Bush administration also wants to insert language into the law that would keep the effect of greenhouse gases on threatened wildlife from being factored into the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists have used that concept as a leveraging tool to try to force the administration to act on global warming.

In a news release announcing the rule change in August, Department of the Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said "it is not possible to link the emissions to impacts on specific listed species such as polar bears."

The Associated Press has reported that the Interior Department received 300,000 public comments on the Bush-backed changes. In order to issue the final rule as quickly as possible, the department brought in 15 staffers to review all of them in a mere 32 hours. The review process usually takes months.

"We wanted to make sure that the comments were reviewed, hence the undertaking," said Interior Department spokesman Chris Paolino of the brief review process. Paolino added that the department hasn't reviewed Brown's letter yet but will consider it in its final decision.

This isn't the first time the Bush administration has come under fire for its approach to endangered species. Last year, the Interior Department's inspector general found that former Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald was "editing, commenting on, and reshaping" (PDF) scientific reports on endangered species, despite the fact that she is not a scientist.

While many environmentalists are optimistic that environmental policy will improve after Barack Obama becomes president on Jan. 20, it's unclear exactly what Obama intends to do about rule revisions issued by the Bush administration in its waning days.

A spokesperson for the Obama campaign told ProPublica they were unable to comment for this story because Obama's press staff for the transition team wasn't in place. In August, however, the AP reported that Obama opposed the Bush administration’s proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act.

We'll call the Obama team again later this week.

© Copyright 2008 Pro Publica Inc.
Photo © Paul S. Hamilton