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Are they really going to gut the Endangered Species Act?

The White House is proposing to let federal agencies decide for themselves whether construction projects could harm listed species.

By Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor / August 12, 2008

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service announced Monday that they are proposing major changes to the Endangered Species Act, a move that critics say will dramatically weaken federal protection of threatened plants and animals.

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The announcement came after the Associated Press obtained a draft proposal of the rule changes [PDF], which seek to bypass the review process for construction projects, such as highways, dams, and mines. Currently, under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies must consult with scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether a project is likely to affect any of the 1,353 animal and plant species listed as endangered or threatened.

The draft rules, which do not need to be approved by Congress but are subject to a 30-day public-comment period, would let each agency decide for itself whether a project would harm listed species.

Additionally, the proposed rules would prohibit federal agencies from assessing the greenhouse gas emissions from construction projects.

The AP details the scope of the proposed changes.

If approved, the changes would represent the biggest overhaul of the Endangered Species Act since 1988. They would accomplish through regulations what conservative Republicans have been unable to achieve in Congress: ending some environmental reviews that developers and other federal agencies blame for delays and cost increases on many projects.
The changes would apply to any project a federal agency would fund, build, or authorize. Government wildlife experts currently perform tens of thousands of such reviews each year.

After the AP broke the story, the Department of the Interior released a statement describing the proposed changes as "narrow." The department argued that agencies now have sufficient expertise to judge for themselves whether a listed species or its habitat would be harmed by a construction project.

“The purpose of these changes is to reduce ambiguity, improve consistency, and narrow interpretive differences, even within the Services. They are a positive step forward,” said Dale Hall, Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “In 1986, our existing rules made sense. At that time very few Federal action agencies had any in-depth expertise with section 7 and listed species, but that is not the case today. We are not being good stewards of our resources when we pursue consultation in situations where the potential effects to a species are either unlikely, incapable of being meaningfully evaluated, wholly beneficial, or pose only a remote risk of causing jeopardy to the species or its habitat.”

Despite the government's attempts to depict these changes as less than sweeping, condemnation from environmental groups came swiftly.

"Clearly, that's a case of asking the fox to guard the chicken coop," said Bob Irvin of Defenders of Wildlife to the Washington Post. "What the Bush administration is telling those agencies is they don't have to think about those impacts anymore."

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