Bush administration officials said Tuesday that they were reviewing proposed changes to the way the 34-year-old Endangered Species Act is enforced, a move that critics say would weaken the law in ways that a Republican majority in Congress was unable to do.
A draft of suggested changes, which was leaked Tuesday, would reduce protection for wildlife habitat and transfer some authority over vulnerable species to states.
Acting under orders from Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who has long fought for changes in the law, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall said he had asked his senior field staff to evaluate proposals in the draft by policy advisors in the Departments of Interior and Commerce, which oversee almost 1,300 imperiled species.
"What we're attempting to do is to update our implementation of the existing law," said Hall, who said any changes would not need to be approved by Congress and would be signed by Kempthorne or a representative.
"The act is written or not written by Congress, but we have the responsibility to implement the law through regulations and policies. We're trying to bring consistency and clarity. That has been a significant problem from one area of the country to another," Hall said.
Hall made his comments after environmental groups and the online journal Salon.com published a draft version of the proposals Tuesday. He said that the version was "a beginning point" circulated internally to eight senior Fish and Wildlife staff in early February, and that it had changed a great deal since. He refused to make public the current version, saying he wanted his staff to be free from "outside interference" while they evaluated possible changes.
He and a Wildlife Service spokesman said that if any of the ideas were formally proposed, they would be posted online and there would be an opportunity for public comment.
"It's sort of a work in progress," spokesman Chris Tollefson said. "Nothing is proposed at this point; we're still working through this."
Contending that the act penalized property owners and made the cost of public works projects prohibitive, House Republicans in particular have been trying to make changes since 1995.
Last year, the House and Senate failed to agree on changes that proponents said could have helped speed approvals for dams, housing developments, highways and other projects where protected species live. Changes in the act could have a significant effect in California, which has the second-highest number of endangered species in the nation after Hawaii.
Congressional staffers said Tuesday that they were studying the draft and could not immediately comment. Senate environment and public works chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) issued a brief statement, saying: "I will vigorously oppose any weakening of the Endangered Species Act, which has saved the American bald eagle, and which is now playing a role in saving the polar bear."
Environmental groups said the draft changes would cripple the law.
"Taken together, this proposal would fundamentally gut the purpose and the intent of the Endangered Species Act. Fewer species would be protected, the standards intended to help them survive and recover would be fundamentally weakened, and very likely more species will go extinct," said Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice.
Since Bush became president, 57 species have been declared endangered, usually as a result of lawsuits -- fewer than any president since the law was signed by President Nixon in 1973.
Damien Schiff, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation representing landowners and developers battling endangered species restrictions, said of the draft: "It's certainly not a gutting of the Endangered Species Act. It is at most an incremental change that might provide moderate or small benefits to the regulated community."
He said that under the version made public, plans for dams to provide electricity and irrigation for farming could proceed with less hindrance even if endangered or threatened species were present. He said that in an extreme case, it was possible a species could become extinct, but only if it was determined that a greater public value such as providing water or power was being served.
The draft contains language from Kempthorne's proposed 1998 legislation and from a controversial bill by former Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), both of which died in Congress. Kempthorne could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tollefson said of the proposals: "The initial work was done before Mr. Kempthorne took office, but really the impetus happened when he came. He has ... had a special interest in the Endangered Species Act for a long time, and he asked [Fish and Wildlife chief] Dale [Hall] to figure out a way to take a look at the act and figure out what we could do."