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Endangered species get an assist from Obama administration

Knut the polar bear sticks out his tongue It's been a week of victories for endangered species.  On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced a key departure from a Bush administration decision about the Endangered Species Act.  The reversal will reinstate a policy that requires federal agencies to consult with experts before launching construction projects that could potentially affect endangered species.

Environmentalists heralded the decision, saying it will prevent groups like the U.S. Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers from "nibbling away" at endangered species' habitats.  Critics argued that the policy change could hinder projects like road-building that could help boost the nation's economy.  Our colleague Jim Tankersley explains:

Bush's rule change, finalized in December, allowed federal agencies to determine on their own if projects would jeopardize endangered species, instead of consulting with expert biologists, as had been required for the last three decades. It gave agencies the option of calling on experts from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Obama made such consultation mandatory. He announced the change during a celebration of the 160th anniversary of the Interior Department, telling cheering employees it would "restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act." Technically, the president did not overturn the Bush rule, which would require a lengthy process. Instead, he issued a memorandum instructing agencies to exercise the consultation option in every instance, until the Interior and Commerce departments can reconsider the Bush rule change.

"This is very good news for endangered species," said Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The regulations that President Bush issued were clearly illegal, and they were bad policy to boot."

Among those crying foul at the Obama administration decision were two Alaska senators, who took the issue back to their colleagues. 

Catherine Ho at the Greenspace blog has the details of the senators' effort:

Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R) and Mark Begich (D) proposed an amendment specifying that if the current administration were to pull the rules, the action would be subject to the 60-day period. That amendment was voted down in the Senate on Thursday, 52 to 42.

"By rejecting Sen. Murkowski's amendment to undermine protection for polar bears and other threatened and endangered species, the Senate capped off a good week for protecting our endangered wildlife," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group.

Begich said in a previous statement that removing the standard 60-day period "allows the secretaries to make dramatic changes in rules and regulations without having to comply with multiple, long-standing federal laws that require public notice and public comment by the American people and knowledgeable scientists."

Schlickeisen added that his group was particularly grateful for the efforts of California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, all of whom spoke out against Murkowski and Begich's proposed amendment.

--Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Polar bear Knut at the Berlin Zoo

Credit: Michael Kappeler / AFP/Getty Images

 
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