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Bush to ease rules on endangered species

Parts of the Endangered Species Act may soon be extinct.

The Bush administration wants federal agencies to decide for themselves whether highways, dams and other construction projects might harm endangered animals and plants. New regulations, which don't require congressional approval, would reduce the mandatory, independent reviews government scientists have performed for 35 years, according to a draft obtained by The Associated Press.

The draft rules also would bar federal agencies from assessing the emissions from projects that contribute to global warming and its effect on species and habitats.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said late Monday the changes were needed to ensure that the Endangered Species Act would not be used as a “back door” to regulate the gases blamed for global warming. In May, the polar bear became the first species declared as threatened because of climate change. Warming temperatures are expected to melt the sea ice the bear depends on for survival.

If approved, the changes would represent the biggest overhaul of the Endangered Species Act since 1988. They would accomplish through regulation what conservative Republicans have been unable to achieve in Congress: ending some environmental reviews that developers and other federal agencies blame for delays and cost increases on many projects.

“If adopted, these changes would seriously weaken the safety net of habitat protections that we have relied upon to protect and recover endangered fish, wildlife and plants for the past 35 years,” said John Kostyack, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming initiative.

Under current law, federal agencies must consult with experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether a project is likely to jeopardize any endangered species or to damage habitat, even if no harm seems likely. This initial review usually results in accommodations that better protect the 1,353 animals and plants in the U.S. listed as threatened or endangered and determines whether a more formal analysis is warranted.

The Interior Department said such consultations are no longer necessary because federal agencies have developed expertise to review their own construction and development projects, according to the 30-page draft.

“We believe federal action agencies will err on the side of caution in making these determinations,” the proposal said.

The director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Dale Hall, said the changes will help focus expertise on projects that have serious repercussions for species.

The new rules are expected to be proposed formally in coming weeks. They would be subject to a 30-day public comment period before being finalized, giving the administration enough time to impose them before November's presidential election.

A new administration could freeze or reverse any pending regulations, a process that could take months. Congress could overturn the rules through legislation, but that could take even longer.

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