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Lame duck Bush takes aim at Endangered Species Act

With January fast approaching, the Bush administration is using back-door politics to do in a matter of weeks what it could not do in the past eight years: dismember environmental laws the American public supports but the administration’s industry allies abhor.

In its cross hairs is the Endangered Species Act – the law that has saved America’s most treasured wildlife from extinction, including the bald eagle, grizzly bear and gray whale.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced plans to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, weakening the safety net of protections that we have relied upon to protect and recover endangered fish, wildlife and plants for the past 35 years.

The proposed changes aim to limit the independent scientific review of federal projects that could harm protected species.

Specifically, the Bush administration wants to allow federal agencies to decide for themselves whether or not their actions – such as building a highway, permitting a mine, damning a river or draining a wetland – would affect imperiled plants and wildlife.

This is a drastic departure from the current law, which requires federal agencies to consult with scientific experts at the Fish & Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether a project is likely to harm a listed species or its critical habitat.

The bulk of these consultations result in the project moving forward as planned. If the project is found to jeopardize a listed species, the experts at FWS or NMFS work to modify the project to avoid harm.

Since 1973, these independent scientific reviews have served as the backbone of the Endangered Species Act. The wildlife and marine biologists that carry out these consultations know best how to protect species.

Taking decisions out of their hands and putting them in the hands of political appointees is like asking students to grade their own papers. Rather than an unearned A+, however, we could see entire populations of species wiped out.

In addition to the immediate damage this could do to America’s imperiled wildlife, the Bush administration is looking to lock in weaker protections for wildlife soon to be at risk from the effects of global warming.

Under the proposed regulations, agencies would not have to account for how their actions contribute to global warming and its impact on species, despite the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated up to 30 percent of the species on Earth are at risk of extinction due to climate change.

To add insult to injury, the Bush administration has chosen to sneak these changes in through the back door. The proposal will not have to undergo Congressional review. Our only hope for stopping this attack is an up swell of public outcry during the 30-day public comment period.

The Endangered Species Act has accomplished so much in its 35-year history. It has saved thousands of species from extinction and restored others, such as the bald eagle, back to health.

As Americans, we have a moral obligation not to let our native plants, fish and wildlife go extinct on our watch. Right now this means standing up and saying “No” to this attempt by the Bush administration to eviscerate this landmark law.

Larry Schweiger is president and chief executive officer of the National Wildlife Federation (www.nwf.org).

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