Environmentalists are critical of ESA change

Posted: Friday, December 19, 2008

JACKSON, Wyo. - A Bush administration rule change that gives federal agencies more leeway with the Endangered Species Act could imperil sage grouse, wolverines and Canada lynx, according to environmentalists.

Bush administration officials finalized a rule last week that lets federal agencies decide whether to consult the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when planning a project that could affect endangered species. Previously, agencies had to consult with Fish and Wildlife.

Wildlife advocates contend the change removes a level of checks and balances for federal agencies and guts one of the most important provisions in the act.

Interior officials said federal agencies could still seek the expertise of federal wildlife biologists on a voluntary basis, and that other parts of the law will ensure that species are protected.

"Nothing in this regulation relieves a federal agency of its responsibilities to ensure that species are not harmed," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said earlier.

But Derek Goldman, northern Rockies representative for the Endangered Species Coalition, said sage grouse is one of the key species that could be harmed by the rule change.

"This whole rule may have been targeted at sage grouse," he said, adding that the bird inhabits a significant portion of land proposed for oil and gas leases in Wyoming. "The Bureau of Land Management could go ahead and authorize drilling permits and new wells without consulting with Fish and Wildlife Service biologists on the local impacts."

Goldman said the Endangered Species Act isn't so much an impediment to development as it is a method to make sure projects get developed responsibly. In a study that looked at 400,000 federal projects that received consultation under the Endangered Species Act between 1998 and 2004, less than 1 percent of those projects were halted, he said.

Also in western Wyoming, officials with Bridger-Teton National Forest are currently reviewing two drilling proposals on forest land that could affect the Canada lynx and wolverine.

Mike Leahy, Rocky Mountain region director of Defenders of Wildlife, said those two projects highlight the need for Fish and Wildlife Service review.

"The Bush administration has taken the scientists and the science out of wildlife management," he said. "The problem with cutting them out is that you place the authority for determining impacts with agencies that have a vested interest in the projects that they want to go forward."

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