Bush Administration Pulls the Teeth from Endangered Species Act

Pika. Photo by William C. Gladish.

The outgoing Bush Administration dropped another last-minute bomb on environmental protections this week. Who took the hit this time? The Endangered Species Act.

On Dec. 11, the Department of Interior announced its decision to approve regulatory changes that will allow government agencies to fast-track decisions about projects that could harm threatened and endangered species.

Federal agencies will now be able to bypass independent scientific review when determining whether a project the agency is planning, such as the construction of a road, could harm critical habitat for plants and animals at risk.

"The decision by the outgoing Department of Interior to gut portions of the Endangered Species Act was as appalling as it was expected,” said David Moulton, The Wilderness Society’s director of Climate Policy and Conservation Funding.

“Not only are they ignoring science, they are preventing others from considering it by forcing through a regulation that could tie the hands of the future administration. It is an abuse of power that either Congress or the new administration must undo at the earliest opportunity," he said.

Under the act, federal agencies had been required to submit project plans to an independent review board and consult ecological experts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service when planning projects that could affect endangered species.

The new regulations create a shortcut that would essentially allow agencies, who have limited ecological expertise and often a stake in moving projects forward, to decide if those projects are safe for threatened and endangered species.

The new regulations will also prevent thorough analysis of a project’s global warming impacts by placing the issue beyond the scope of environmental review. The impacts on threatened and endangered species from a project’s greenhouse gas emissions would simply not be evaluated.

“Faced with the facts of a warming climate, destroying critical habitat of threatened species such as the polar bear, this administration has once again turned its back,” Moulton said.

This is bad news at a time when, according to the International Panel on Climate Change, as much as 30 percent of our planet’s species could become extinct if global warming continues unabated.

The ESA regulations are the latest in a lengthy list of last-minute environmental rollbacks that the administration is attempting to push through before it leaves office.

photo: Pika, Photo by William C. Gladish.