Obama rolls back Bush rules on endangered species

* Obama tells agencies to consult scientists before acting

* Environmentalists praise move to reverse late Bush order

WASHINGTON, March 3 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday directed U.S. government agencies to consult with scientists before taking action that could harm endangered species, rolling back last-minute rules put forward by former President George W. Bush.

Obama, a Democrat who has spent much of his first six weeks in office undoing policies of his Republican predecessor, signed a memo urging agencies such as the Department of Transportation to consult with government scientists before pursuing projects that could hurt threatened animals.

The Bush administration had proposed to let those agencies decide on their own whether their activities, such as building highways and dams, posted such a threat.

Obama took a shot at his predecessor when announcing the move during a visit with employees at the Department of the Interior earlier in the day.

“Today I’ve signed a memorandum that will help restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act, a process undermined by past administrations,” Obama said to applause.

“The work of scientists and experts in my administration ... will be respected. For more than three decades, the Endangered Species Act has successfully protected our nation’s most threatened wildlife, and we should be looking for ways to improve it -- not weaken it.”

Bush, who battled with environmentalists for years over his polices on climate change and other issues, drew further criticism at the end of his term for issuing “midnight regulations” that were viewed as ecologically unfriendly.

His changes to the Endangered Species Act were just one of a handful or such moves.

Environmental activists praised Obama’s shift on Tuesday.

“Today’s announcement marks the unequivocal return of science to the agencies that govern our fish, wildlife, and natural resources,” said Carl Pope, executive director of environmental group Sierra Club.

“The Bush rules would have allowed agencies with little or no wildlife expertise to make decisions that could mean life or death for animals like the polar bear. When it comes to protecting wildlife, we should listen to the scientists who spend their lives studying these animals.”

Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who chairs a Congressional committee on energy independence and global warming, also welcomed the move.

“Today proves that, under an Obama administration, scientists are no longer an endangered species,” he said in a statement. (Editing by Eric Walsh)