The Bush administration has taken direct aim at Noah's ark in its latest attack on the environment. Instead of asking Congress to adequately fund the US Fish and Wildlife Service's division that enforces the Endangered Species Act the administration is seeking to strip key provisions from the Act to make it cheaper to administer.
This move could push hundreds of American species closer to the edge of extinction in the coming year. The Bush changes could keep the New England cottontail rabbit, along with hundreds of other American species, from getting federal protection, ironically on the eve of the Easter weekend. The administration proposal is likely to benefit developers, timber companies, mining corporations, and other special interests with ties to the administration.
"We came very close to wiping out the American bison, the bald eagle, the wolf, and the grizzly bear," said Earthjustice executive director Buck Parker. "Now the Bush administration is happy to stand by and deny a host of American birds, animals and plants the protection they desperately need and deserve."
The bill's changes would affect hundreds of species at various stages of ESA review. This includes some 249 species currently awaiting review by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The proposed level of funding from the administration doesn't come close to giving the Fish and Wildlife Service what they need to handle the problem – twice as many as the 80 people nationwide currently working on it. More ominously, the bill would also suspend parts of the Endangered Species Act that compel the government to act in a timely manner in dealing with America's vanishing species.
"We don't have the luxury of time when trying to save vanishing species," said Earthjustice attorney Todd True. "Every day more land is paved over, more of America's forests are mowed down, and more of America's waterways are polluted and diverted. Americans care about the natural world around us in this great land of Lewis and Clark, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. We have to act now."
Specifically, the bill would drop several important deadlines currently contained in the ESA. Dropping the deadlines would neutralize one of the key tools citizen activists have used to move ESA compliance along.
"In the last decade, due to political pressure from industries, few species have made it onto the list without deadline enforcement by citizens," said Earthjustice attorney Mike Sherwood. "Bush's proposals would make listing decisions voluntary by removing the law's deadlines. And it would leave the notoriously anti-ESA Gale Norton to decide which species deserve to live and which would be too expensive to save. That is like deciding that it is okay for 10 or 15 or 100 rivets to fall out of a jet airliner before it needs to be taken in for repair. Who is to say which is the rivet that will make the plane crash to the ground?"
One deadline forces the government to respond within 90 days after receiving a petition to "list" a species. Another forces the government to issue a "proposed determination" within 12 months of receiving a listing petition. A third deadline compels the government to make a "final determination" within 24 months of receiving the petition.
Yet another deadline that is being dropped says the government has to designate critical habitat at the time of listing a species. This means the government has to determine the actual real estate that is critical for the species to recover. Typically the government asks for and receives a one-year extension to designate critical habitat. This deadline also gets dropped under the Bush proposal.
Historically the government has failed to add species deserving protection to the ESA list and has only done so when forced to by citizen groups. Ninety-two percent of all species listed in California during the last nine years were as a result of citizen petition and court order. The government has typically failed to designate critical habitat within the time prescribed in the ESA and typically does so only after court orders instigated by citizen groups.
"The Bush proposal will shut out regional citizen groups who want to protect their local wildlife," said Mike Sherwood.
The Bush proposal would start a new rule-making process aimed at establishing a hierarchy of which species would get attention under a limited FWS budget.