The changes are fiercely technical and complicated, but make future listings extremely difficult, redefine key concepts to the detriment of protected species, virtually hand over administration of the act to hostile states, and severely restrict habitat protections.
Many of the changes -- lifted from unsuccessful legislative proposals from then-Senator (now Interior Secretary) Dirk Kempthorne and the recently defeated congressman Richard Pombo -- are reactions to policies and practices established as a result of litigation filed by environmental organizations including Earthjustice.
"After the failure of these legislative proposals in the last Congress, the Bush administration has opted to gut the Endangered Species Act through the only avenue left open: administrative regulations," said Hasselman. "This end-run around the will of Congress and the American people will not succeed."
A major change would make it more difficult for a species to gain protection, by scaling back the "foreseeable future" timeframe in which to consider whether a species is likely to become extinct. Instead of looking far enough ahead to be able to reasonably determine whether a species could be heading for extinction, the new regulations would drastically shorten the timeframe to either 20 years or 10 generations at the agency's discretion. For species with long generations like killer whales and grizzly bears, this truncated view of the future isn't nearly enough time to accurately predict whether they are at-risk now.
"These draft regulations represent a total rejection of the values held by the vast majority Americans: that we have a responsibility to protect imperiled species and the special places they call home," said Kate Freund, Legislative Associate at Earthjustice.
According to several sources within the Fish and Wildlife Service quoted by Salon, hostility to the law within the agency has never been so intense. "I have 20 years of federal service in this and this is the worst it has ever been," one unnamed source is quoted as saying.
In addition, the proposal would allow projects by the Forest Service and other agencies to proceed even if scientific evidence suggests that the projects might drive species to extinction so long as the rate of decline doesn't accelerate owing to the project.
The Bush administration's antipathy to the law is shown by the numbers of species it has protected, in each case as the result of litigation -- 57. By comparison, 253 species were listed during the Reagan administration, 521 under Clinton, and 234 under Bush I.
The administration reportedly had expected to reveal the new regulations in a few weeks. The draft regulations must be published in the Federal Register for public comment before they can become final, which is likely to be at least a year off.