Bush Administration to Launch Sneak Attack on Endangered Species Act

Proposed regulations would gut protections for America s imperiled wildlife

08-11-2008 // Aislinn Maestas

The Bush Administration plans to rollback protections for America's imperiled wildlife by re-writing the regulations of the Endangered Species Act. According to leaked documents obtained by the National Wildlife Federation, the proposed changes would weaken the safety net of habitat protections that have helped protect and recover endangered fish, wildlife and plants for the past 35 years.

"I have been working on the Endangered Species Act for 15 years and have never seen such a sneaky attack," said John Kostyack, Executive Director of Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming at the National Wildlife Federation. "To suggest that our nation's most important wildlife law could be gutted after a mere 30 day written comment period is the height of arrogance and disrespect for wildlife science. Elected officials have been saying no to proposals like this for 15 years.

"Do not be fooled when the Administration claims it is merely tweaking the law," said Kostyack. "The cumulative impact of these changes equals a full blown attack on America's premier conservation law. We owe it to future generations to stop this attack and continue our legacy of protecting wildlife on the brink of extinction."

Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act has served as America's safety net for wildlife. It has saved hundreds of species from extinction, put hundreds more on the road to recovery and safeguarded the habitats upon which they depend. Without it, the bald eagle, condor, gray wolf, grizzly bear, Florida panther, manatee and hundreds of other species would be extinct today.

"With these changes, the Bush Administration threatens to undo more than 30 years of progress," said Kostyack. "This move is consistent with other efforts by the Administration to cement industry-friendly policies before leaving office in January."

Despite strong public support for the Endangered Species Act, the Bush Administration is moving forward in its waning months to weaken the law's key safeguards. The proposed changes target the Endangered Species Act's consultation process, which serves as the main safety net for species on the brink by allowing scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if listed species will be harmed before moving forward with activities such as logging, mining or filling of wetlands.

The proposed regulations attempt to:

  • Eliminate informal consultations. Currently, federal agencies seeking to carry out, fund or permit an action must enter into either formal or informal consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service if the action is found to have any affect whatsoever on a listed species. The Bush Administration wants to significantly reduce informal consultations by allowing proponents of federal projects to decide unilaterally whether projects have adverse effects on listed species. This would eliminate the ability of the Service to review projects and employ its expert scientific judgment about what is needed to protect species and habitats unless an agency requests an informal consultation.
  • Reduce the number of formal consultations. These are the in-depth reviews that lead to the preparation of a biological opinion, in which the Service determines whether a project will jeopardize listed species or adversely modify its critical habitat and, if so, how the project must be modified to avoid harm. The proposed changes eliminate the requirement for formal consultation any time that an agency unilaterally determines that a project will have no adverse effect on listed species.
  • Avoid or minimize consultations based on "Lack of Causation" arguments. Under this rule, agencies could avoid consultation if they determine their action will have only a "marginal" impact on a listed species, ignoring the fact that the cumulative effect of "marginal" piecemeal destruction of habitat quantity and quality is one of the main causes of species decline and extinction. "This could mean death by a thousand cuts for many threatened and endangered species," said Kostyack.
  • Impose an arbitrary deadline on the consultation process. Perhaps most outrageously, the Administration proposes to impose a 60-day deadline on the Service to respond to an agency's request for consultation and, if this deadline is not met, to allow the project to go forward regardless of the impacts of the project on listed species. "The creation of an arbitrary deadline could enable even the most harmful projects to escape Endangered Species Act scrutiny," said Kostyack.

"The Bush Administration has a long history of downplaying the role of science in its decisions," said Kostyack. "These changes take unbiased, professional wildlife biologists out of the equation and put decisions in the hands of political appointees."

"The Bush Administration believes it can succeed now with this discredited agenda because the American people and Congress are distracted by a presidential campaign and other pressing issues," said Kostyack. "We hope our champions in Congress will call for a full review of this proposal and work to halt this stealth attack on America's most important wildlife law."

Karla Raettig, raettigk@nwf.org, 202-797-6869 or 202-674-3174
Aislinn Maestas, maestas@nwf.org, 202-797-6624

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