From the bald eagle to the whooping crane, the grizzly bear and the peregrine falcon, the federal Endangered Species Act has been a crucial tool in protecting our country’s diminishing wildlife:
* When the bald eagle was first protected under the act in 1963, there were only 416 pairs left in the United States. By 2006, the eagle’s numbers had soared to 9,789 pairs.
* When the whooping crane was first listed in 1967, there were only 54 such birds in the United States. Under the act’s protections, its population grew to 513 by 2007.
* Only 224 grizzly bears were living in the Yellowstone area in 1975; 30 years later, the Endangered Species Act had helped the population rebound to more than 500 bears. Likewise, between the start of protection of peregrine falcons in 1975 and the year 2000, the country’s population of peregrine falcons rebounded from 324 to 1,700 pairs.
After the Endangered Species Act’s protection of hundreds and hundreds of species from extinction in the United States during the last 35 years, the Bush administration last week endangered the act itself.
It did so by eliminating one of the act’s signal components: the requirement for independent scientific review of proposed federal projects to determine whether they would endanger plants or animals that are protected under the act. Now, an agency building a road or dam or leasing land for oil and gas extraction could simply bypass a step that, in the old days, might have stopped the project from happening because it would have further endangered already-imperiled species.
As a lawsuit immediately filed by conservationists against the move stated, “The final regulations provide federal action agencies with unprecedented authority to unilaterally assess the impact of their own actions on listed species.”
In other words, the fox is in charge of the henhouse.
When the administration first gave notice in August that it was considering such a change, the public’s response was deafening. More than 230,000 individual comments sailed into the Interior Department, the majority of them protesting the change.
The response of Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (whose scientists conducted most of the reviews of proposed projects’s impacts to endangered wildlife) was typical: “These changes are going to result in more species being put in jeopardy,” Clark said. “But more importantly, we are not going to know what we don’t know anymore.”
With only a 30-day comment period (it’s usually 60-90 days) and an administration evidently intent on ignoring the comments that it did review, the public’s input was moot. The changes were issued Dec. 11.
The final days of every administration are usually accompanied by a flurry of damaging activity — set the fire and hightail it out of town. In this case, the Bush administration’s move to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act comes at the end of eight years of relentless effort to undermine the nation’s environmental protections, including the act.
That this latest move was done through administrative fiat and not with appropriate legislative review undermines its legitimacy and we hope that the incoming Obama administration works with Congress to undo quickly the damage that’s been done.
Removing scientific review from the nation’s landmark and highly successful endangered species law is a cynical and reckless act. The administration couldn’t get rid of the Endangered Species directly, through Congress; so instead, it went through the backdoor, effectively bypassing the democratic process.