Two years ago, powerful members of the U.S. Congress mounted a strong effort to rewrite the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists and many scientists feared that many of the changes would lessen the protection of imperiled organisms and undercut their chances of recovery. The bid failed, and when Republicans lost control of Congress, the law seemed secure.
Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)--the federal agency charged with administering the law--is quietly working to accomplish many of the same revisions with modifications to its regulations. A leaked draft, released today by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, shows proposed changes that "would very dramatically weaken implementation of the act," says Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona.
The 114-page document, leaked to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., was most recently revised on 17 February by FWS staff. Among the major changes it suggests is to allow the governor of any state the right to veto a reintroduction of endangered species to boost their population. In addition, the draft regulations would allow developers to destroy restored habitat, and they would allow approved projects, such as dams, to continue even if they've been subsequently shown to harm endangered species. And in a major change, the draft regulations would turn over much of the management of the act to the states, which, Suckling says, "would balkanize management efforts."
Before new regulations can take effect, FWS must publish the draft and consider public comments. FWS did not return calls by press time. Suckling says the draft appears to be in a near-final form, and he expects to see it published in the next few months. "Something as big and sweeping as this usually takes several years," he says. "They're down to the wire to get this out the door before [President] Bush leaves office."