Wildlife at risk under U.S. plan: environmentalists

WASHINGTON Tue Mar 27, 2007 4:46pm EDT

1 of 2. A grizzly bear walks on snow near Obsidian Creek in the Yellowstone National Park in this file photo taken in April 2003.Bears, birds and other creatures could be put at greater risk under proposed Bush administration changes to the Endangered Species Act, according to a U.S. government document released on Tuesday by environmentalists.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Peaco/National Park Service/Handout

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Bears, birds and other creatures could be put at greater risk under proposed Bush administration changes to the Endangered Species Act, according to a U.S. government document released on Tuesday by environmentalists.

The proposed rewrite to the landmark law that protects American wildlife would weaken the act so much that about 80 percent of the 1,300 species now on the endangered list would lose protection, said Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Efforts to restore the California condor into new states would be stopped under these regulations," Suckling said in a telephone interview from Tucson, Arizona. "Efforts to reintroduce grizzly bears to new areas would be stopped ... This suite of regulations rewrites the Endangered Species Act from top to bottom."

Hugh Vickery, a spokesman for the Interior Department, which helps administer the act, said the document was "very obsolete" and "does not represent the latest thinking" of the administration on this issue. He said any formal proposal would be published in the Federal Register and debated publicly.

But Jan Hasselman, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, said notations in the document -- available online here -- indicate changes made as recently as mid-February.

"If this is no longer the thing that they are working on, it's clear that they were working on it very, very recently," Hasselman said by telephone from Seattle.

The document was made available by the Center for Biological Diversity and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. An article based on the document was issued late on Monday by the online magazine Salon.com.

GETTING AROUND CONGRESS?

Daniel Patterson of the public employees' group said the proposed regulations would give the states more discretion in enforcing the law on endangered species, which he said was a change previously and unsuccessfully sought by some in Congress.

"One of the main reasons the Endangered Species Act was created as a national law is because states were not protecting and recovering endangered species," Patterson said. "States are more influenced by political pressure, and many states do not even have even basic protections for whistle-blowers, people that would be trying to ensure that the law was followed."

The environmental groups said the proposed new regulations would: allow damaging projects to go ahead even after they have been shown to threaten species with extinction; limit the listing of new endangered species; allow states to take over critical functions such as listing species, overseeing federal agencies and issuing habitat conservation plans.

Suckling and others called the proposed changes an attempt to get around Congress, which would be unlikely to approve them.

The Interior Department's Vickery denied this.

"The government can't unilaterally rewrite the Endangered Species Act," Vickery said by telephone. "That's Congress' job."

He said the draft document represented early thinking among government staff members and was no longer current. He said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne had held "listening sessions" on this and other topics since taking his job in May 2006.

Vickery confirmed that the Bush administration favored working with the states on such matters as the Endangered Species Act, which he said "carves out ... a large role for the states that in some ways has been neglected or ignored."

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