Today the Bush administration finalized a rule change that greatly weakens the Endangered Species Act. Environmental advocates and commercial fishermen are vowing to reverse this move and restore protections for America’s endangered and threatened birds, fish and wildlife.
The new, weaker ESA rule cuts federal wildlife scientists out of the review process for federal projects. Now federal agencies involved with projects such as new highways, bridges, dams and airports can self-regulate to determine the threats posed to imperiled wildlife, a move that wildlife organizations believe poses grave threats to wildlife. These agencies not only lack the expertise to determine whether federal projects poses a threat to endangered wildlife, they have a built-in conflict of interest.
In a 2005 court ruling, Earthjustice, a public interest environmental law firm, successfully challenged a similar proposal to weaken the Endangered Species Act. That proposal authorized the EPA to exclude fish biologists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service from decisions regarding the harm pesticides pose to federally protected salmon runs. A federal district court ruled this was a clear violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Conservation and fishing groups, represented by Earthjustice, announced they will challenge the new rule in federal district court. The Bush rule change violates federal law by not adequately considering the true impact on wildlife populations it will inflict.
The new rule also ignored federal requirements that assure the public’s right to review and comment on proposed rule changes. The Bush administration fast-tracked this proposal with as little public input as possible, refusing to accept comments by email or hold public hearings. Administration officials spent only four days reviewing the estimated 235,000 public comments regarding the rule change. Of that total, they admitted 200,000 opposed the rule change.
Earthjustice is representing the Sierra Club, Conservation Northwest, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), and the Institute for Fisheries Resources. The Natural Resources Defense Council is joining Earthjustice in handling the lawsuit.
"Whether we’re talking about bald eagles or grizzly bears, gray wolves or northern spotted owls, they all need the benefit of wildlife experts when decisions are being made that might wipe out the habitat or food a wildlife species needs," said Earthjustice attorney Janette Brimmer.
"This administration has rejected anything with a whiff of science -- so before sulking out the back door, they are going after rules that force its use to prevent harm to our last wild animals and places," said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Endangered Species Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "We remain convinced that these changes are illegal, so I guess we will see them in court."
Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), said, "This new rule makes every ESA action a purely political decision rather than based on the best available science as the law requires. On the west coast, this would mean the extinction of most of the nation’s existing salmon runs and the loss of a billion-dollar fishing industry."
"These rules would be a lasting reminder of all of the disdain for science and political trumping of expertise that have characterized the Bush Administration's efforts to dismantle fundamental environmental laws," said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. "When it comes to protecting wildlife, we should listen to the scientists who spend their lives studying these animals. If they say global warming is the biggest threat to polar bears, then we should do what it takes to eliminate that threat."