A giant step backwards for wildlife

Ahhh, the Bush Administration.  Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that they are going to propose new regulatory changes to the Endangered Species Act that will dramatically weaken provisions of the law that apply to federal agencies.

Right now, federal agencies are required to check in with either the Wildlife Service or the Fisheries Service (depending on the species involved) if they want to take any action that “may affect” protected species.  For example, let’s say that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is asked to issue a permit to allow the destruction of 100 acres of wetlands on which an animal protected by the Endangered Species Act may be living.  Under today’s rules, the Corps must first consult with the federal wildlife agencies before it can issue this permit.  Under the new rules, the Corps could skip this step if—and here’s the crucial part—the Corps decides entirely on its own that the permit at issue would not have any adverse effect on the protected species.

Informally known as “self-consultation,” this policy is designed to vitiate the checks-and-balances that have made the Endangered Species Act so successful and it’s long been pushed by opponents of the Act.  The  insidiousness of self-consultation is especially plain once you consider that many federal agencies are deeply committed to either certain kinds of projects (the Bureau of Reclamation likes to build dams; the Department of Transportation likes highways) or are entirely sympathetic to particular industries (the Office of Surface Mining, for example).  It’s a cliche, but today’s proposal is as clear a case of letting the fox guard the henhouse as you’re ever likely to see. 

And these aren’t the only changes that are being proposed.  There are other items in the proposed regulation that are just as worrisome.  We should see a copy of the full regulatory proposal in the next few days.

UPDATE: You can read the Fish and Wildlife Service's news release announcing the changes here.

UPDATE II:  The NRDC Action Fund will be collecting comments on the proposed rule to give to the agency.  If you wish to comment, go here.