To read the outcry over President Bush’s recent changes to the regulations implementing the Endangered Species Act, you’d think that it amounted to a repeal of the Act or even an incitement to hunting. Instead, this is the extent of the changes:
With the regulations finalized today, federal agencies must still follow all existing consultation procedures, except in specific and limited instances where an action is not anticipated to adversely impact any member of a listed species AND that action fulfills one of the following criteria:
- Where the action has no effect on a listed species or critical habitat, or
- Where the action is wholly beneficial, or
- Where the effects of the action can not be measured or detected in a manner that permits meaningful evaluation using the best available science, or
- Where the effects of the action are the result of global processes and can not be reliably predicted or measured on the scale of species current range, or would result in an insignificant impact to a listed species, or are such that the potential risk of harm to a species is remote.
This rule change applies only to federal agencies and only removes the need for a formal evaluation in the case of one of the situations listed above, each of which is a reasonable test. What do the environmentalists think of the action?
This administration has rejected anything with a whiff of science—so before sulking out the back door, they are going after rules that require Fish and Wildlife Service scientists to prevent harm to our last wild animals and places. Despite today’s feel-good statements, we remain convinced that these changes are illegal. We will look at the final language when it is published tomorrow, but I think we will see them in court.
These rules would be a lasting reminder of all of the disdain for science and political trumping of expertise that have characterized the Bush Administration’s efforts to dismantle fundamental environmental laws. When it comes to protecting wildlife, we should listen to the scientists who spend their lives studying these animals. If they say global warming is the biggest threat to polar bears, then we should do what it takes to eliminate that threat.
Why the fuss over such an insignificant amendment? Two reasons: 1) it injects some consideration other than the animals’ needs and 2) the listing of the polar bear was going to be used to force action on global warming. The latter rationale is pretty self-evident and even acknowledged by both the Commerce Secretary and the environmentalists themselves. But the former source of hostility is far more damning.
Most of the suits taken against individuals, companies, and agencies to block actions are based on hypothetical harms done to endangered species. Building these homes could affect the migratory patterns of the red-crested throaty bimbleboot, constructing that highway might shrink the slinking blue-chested salamander’s habitat, or cutting down those trees that pose a fire hazard may spook hyacinth macaws from mating. The effects on the human population of thwarted projects, unbuilt roads, or unchecked wildlife are irrelevant.
These new rules, however, permit activity when the actual harm is negligible or unknown. It’s a far cry from a proper prioritization, which would put mankind paramount, but it at least seeks to ground endangered species assessments in reality. Which is precisely where environmentalists don’t want them because they view the Endangered Species Act as inviolate, unlimited, and unquestionable. Anything less is to express a “disdain for science” and to question “expertise.”
Environmentalists then fear that this change for federal agencies could prove to be a wedge that allows for broader setting aside of the Act and so they are preparing to dig in their heels for a nasty fight. Despite the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, they will likely win since the next president is not a “longtime advocate of the unfettered free market” like the current one is.