- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Parts of the Endangered Species Act may soon be extinct.

The Bush administration wants federal agencies to decide for themselves whether highways, dams, mines and other construction projects might harm endangered animals and plants.

New regulations, which don’t require the approval of Congress, would reduce the mandatory, independent reviews that government scientists have been performing for 35 years, according to a draft obtained by the Associated Press.

The draft rules also would bar federal agencies from assessing the emissions from projects that contribute to global warming and its effect on species and habitats.

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.

“If adopted, these changes would seriously weaken the safety net of habitat protections that we have relied upon to protect and recover endangered fish, wildlife and plants for the past 35 years,” said John Kostyack, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming initiative.

Under current law, federal agencies must consult with experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether a project is likely to jeopardize any endangered species or to damage habitat, even if no harm seems likely.

This initial review usually results in accommodations that better protect the 1,353 animals and plants in the U.S. listed as threatened or endangered and determines whether a more formal analysis is warranted.

The Interior Department said such consultations are no longer necessary because federal agencies have developed expertise to review their own construction and development projects, according to the 30-page draft obtained by the AP.

“We believe federal action agencies will err on the side of caution in making these determinations,” the proposal says.

The director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, H. Dale Hall, in an interview with the AP on Monday, said the changes will help focus expertise on projects that have serious repercussions for species.

“We are trying to be more efficient, which means not do consultations that result in a difference for the species,” Mr. Hall said.

A National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman declined Monday to discuss the draft proposal because it had yet to be published.

The new rules are expected to be proposed formally in coming weeks. They would be subject to a 60-day public-comment period before being finalized by the Interior Department, giving the administration enough time to impose them before November’s presidential election.

A new administration could freeze any pending regulations or reverse them, a process that could take months. Congress could also overturn the rules through legislation, but that could take even longer.

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