The Bush administration is preparing to deliver a sucker punch to the Endangered Species Act. A new proposal would hand over the responsibility of protecting endangered species from federal projects like dams and highways to the federal agencies themselves.
Under current law, agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Corps of Engineers must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether a proposed project might threaten a species. The new proposal suggests that the agencies have gained such vast experience in implementing the Act that they no longer need oversight.
Environmentalists say the proposed changes will gut, eviscerate and otherwise graphically maim the Act. But Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne contends they will merely allow Fish and Wildlife to focus their efforts on the most potentially harmful projects. The proposal is an example of a new tactic that proponents of weakening the Act have recently taken: modifying the regulations that implement it, rather than trying to push wholesale changes through Congress.
While some of the proposed changes are simply clarifications, the Act would be altered in at least two important ways if the proposal goes through. For one, federal agencies that under current law frequently undergo consultations with Fish and Wildlife due to the Endangered Species Act could skip that step if they decided a project would commit little harm to a species.
“What they’ve done is take a shotgun to a mosquito,” says Mark Stermitz, a former trial attorney with the Environment Division of the Department of Justice. “There are major problems with the current system but I don’t think removing the Services from the equation is the answer.”
Federal agencies would still have to adhere to the “take threshold,” which bars the killing or injuring of a listed species. But incremental habitat degradation—which can lead to death by a thousand cuts for a species—would likely be less regulated under the new rules.
The proposal would also eliminate the variable of climate change from the determination, so that the global warming effects of a new power plant on the polar bear population, for instance, would not be considered under the bailiwick of the Act.
To read the proposed changes and submit a comment, go here, and quickly. To add insult to injury, the public comment period is only open until September 15, a scant thirty days. (You may need a cheat sheet to decipher the proposal.)