Power plant victim? The Hawaiian monk seal is covered under the Endangered Species Act.

Bush Administration Proposes Loosening Endangered Species Act

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) yesterday proposed changes to the rules controlling how government agencies deal with the Endangered Species Act (ESA), drawing ire from environmentalists, who say the revisions would dilute the scientific review process that underpins the law.

Before beginning federal projects or granting permission for private ones, agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency usually consult with scientists in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The scientists--typically biologists and ecologists--determine whether the proposed development would harm critical habitats or endangered species. The requirement holds for tens of thousands of projects each year, including highway and dam construction and oil and gas exploration.

Consultations are required if the projects "may" affect endangered species, and federal agencies seek an opinion in most cases. The new rules would make it easier for agencies to skip the consultation process, requiring them to confer with the scientists only if their own experts determine that the proposed project is not "an insignificant contributor to any effects on a listed species or critical habitat."

"These changes are designed to reduce the number of unnecessary consultations under the ESA so that more time and resources can be devoted to the protection of the most vulnerable species," DOI said yesterday in a press release.

The rules further state that projects now must have a "direct" impact on endangered species in order to be regulated, which the Interior department says means that federal agencies cannot take climate change into account when considering development such as oil drilling. That became an issue in May, when FWS ruled that polar bears were threatened under ESA due to warming arctic temperatures (ScienceNOW, 14 May). Under the new rules, federal scientists would have a hard time concluding, for example, that a power plant is harming threatened seals due to its carbon emissions. Although those emissions might be contributing to climate change, they are not specifically "the essential cause" of the deterioration of the seal's habitat.

Environmentalists worry that allowing federal agencies to police themselves will amount to having "the fox guarding the hen house," says former U.S. Forest Service ecologist Robert Mrowka, now with the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. "It takes the science out of scientific review," says Kassie Siegel, climate director of the center. The public can comment on the rules for the next 30 days, after which DOI will finalize them.

Posted in Policy, Environment