The Secret Plan to Gut the Endangered Species Act


Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has posted a draft of a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act. The proposed changes would accomplish administratively much of what the Bush Administration may have hoped to push through Congress before the Republicans were ousted in November. The 117-page document is likely the brainchild of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who, Salon writes, “has been an outspoken critic of the act.

The proposed draft is littered with language lifted directly from both Kempthorne’s 1998 legislation as well as from a contentious bill by former Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. (which was also shot down by Congress). It’s “a wish list of regulations that the administration and its industry allies have been talking about for years,” says [Kieran] Suckling [of the Center for Biological Diversity]. . . .

One change would significantly limit the number of species eligible for endangered status. Currently, if a species is likely to become extinct in “the foreseeable future” — a species-specific timeframe that can stretch up to 300 years — it’s a candidate for act protections. However, the new rules scale back that timeline to mean either 20 years or 10 generations (the agency can choose which timeline). For certain species with long life spans, such as killer whales, grizzly bears or wolves, two decades isn’t even one generation. So even if they might be in danger of extinction, they would not make the endangered species list because they’d be unlikely to die out in two decades. . .

Perhaps the most significant proposed change gives state governors the opportunity and funding to take over virtually every aspect of the act from the federal government. This includes not only the right to create species-recovery plans and the power to veto the reintroduction of endangered species within state boundaries, but even the authority to determine what plants and animals get protection. For plants and animals in Western states, that’s bad news: State politicians throughout the region howled in opposition to the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into Arizona and the Northern Rockies wolf into Yellowstone National Park.

By last week, as MoJo blogger Jen Phillips wrote about here, Interior had already launched a salvo against the ESA, announcing a proposal to stop protecting species based on their historical range and use their current range instead. That would mean that if a species of salmon is extinct in nine of 10 streams, but doing fine in the 10th stream, then the Fish and Wildlife Service would see no problem.

When I met with the folks at Earthjustice last week, we discussed what attacking the ESA might do to Bush’s already-weak political capital. It’s an interesting question. The move would probably hurt Bush with the nation at large, but endear him to his base, or at least certain parts of his base, like ranchers and developers. But it could also exacerbate a split in other parts of his base, such as between conservative evangelicals and those who are now embracing “creation care.” Looks like that’s gamble Bush is willing to make.

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