Legal memo limits animal protections

New legal memos by top Bush administration officials say that the Endangered Species Act can't be used to protect animals and their habitats from climate change by regulating specific sources of greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of global warming.

The assessment, outlined in memos sent earlier this month and leaked Tuesday, provides the official legal justification for limiting protections under the Endangered Species Act.

One of the memos, from the Interior Department's top lawyer, concluded that emissions of greenhouse gases from any proposed project can't be proved to have an impact on species or habitat. Thus it isn't necessary for federal agencies to consult with government wildlife experts about the impact of such gases on species as required by the Endangered Species Act, the memo said.

The legal opinions about the Endangered Species Act come as the Bush administration seeks to change regulations to reduce the role that government wildlife experts have in protecting animals from the effects of climate change.

The administration proposed the changes in August. Tuesday was the last day for public comment. Public opposition was massive.

The August proposed changes would allow federal agencies to decide for themselves whether timber sales, dam building or other projects harm wildlife. In many cases they would not have to consult with the agencies charged with administering the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Endangered Species Act prohibits any federal actions that would jeopardize the existence of a listed species or “adversely modify” critical habitats. The 1973 law has helped save species such as the bald eagle, the grizzly bear and the manatee.

“They are reinterpreting the law in ways many believe are unlawful,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, who was the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration.

John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation said the consultations were a cornerstone of the law. “Allowing federal agencies to forgo this process would put America's treasured plants, fish and wildlife at risk.”