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Bush & the Endangered Species Act

August 12, 2008

Without question, the Endangered Species Act is one of the forward-looking as well as oft-abused pieces of legislation in recent American politics, depending on whom you ask. George Bush, with the goal of setting himself and Republicans apart from Democratic brethren, has employed some last minute “administrative” changes in the federal law. To confound environmentalists and Democrats alike, politics delayed publication of the changes in the Federal Register. Nobody really knows what changes have been made, but are sounding the alarm anyway.

Media opinion dictates that Bush will accomplish through regulations what conservative Republicans have been unable to achieve in Congress through law. Bush seeks to end some environmental reviews that developers and other federal agencies blame for delays and cost increases on many projects. In an abdication of previous federal authority taken, the Bush administration intends that federal agencies should decide for themselves whether highways, dams, mines and other construction projects might harm endangered animals and plants instead of running everything through Congress for approval. Whether this is a payoff of some kind or last-minute manipulation to meet party goals is open for debate.

Apparently, Republicans have decided that this federal law should be used to protect species that are most vulnerable instead of as a political platform for global warming and climate change. That is what Republican representatives for the administration say. The Associated Press is reporting the most radical changes in the federal law since 1986 based on an early draft copy.

Angered environmentalists and those whose livelihood depends on the federal law have been vocal. The federal government maintains that federal agencies have systems in place to administer the Endangered Species Act instead of active lawmaker involvement. Some consider that the number of “species” protected is all important to protecting nature. The first president Bush listed 231 animals in 4 years. Under the Clinton Administration, the number of “species” increased by 521. During two terms of George Bush, 59 “species” have been added to the roster.

Curiously, the word “species” typically applies to a larger group of animals and often used to be applied to “genus”, but the meaning has blurred over the last 30 years. The meaning of “species” has come to mean any group of animals of similar kind and type even though there are often subspecies. The law is an admirable measure to protect native wildlife from abuse and destruction. However, this kind of legislation is based on need, not on whimsy and political ploys.

Not all animals need “endangered species” protection because not all animals are facing endangerment or extinction as a species, which is the central focus of the Endangered Species Act. Not all animals reside in the North American zone, so there is no need to add species to the legislation that don’t live in areas under the attack of population. The polar bear has been declared to be endangered based on questionable climate data, a situation that mankind or this country can do little about and even though numbers of polar bears are thought to be increasing for the time being.

The new midnight rules, which will be subject to a 30-day comment period, use administrative powers of the President to make broad changes in the law that Congress has resisted for years. Under current legal interpretation, agencies must subject any plans that potentially affect endangered animals and plants to an independent review by the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service. Under proposed new rules in draft, dam, highway construction and other federal projects could proceed without delay if the federal agency in charge decides a project would not harm vulnerable species listed in the Endangered Species Act.

This is a political powder keg that will probably not go away. What is to stop a new president from sweeping into office and making similar administrative changes, whether for or against. While John McCain has conducted himself very much like a Democrat in environmental circles, he is not likely to meddle with this new administrative change because it meets the feel of Republican policy overall. Barack Obama can move into office and reverse the changes that George Bush made, undoubtedly creating more political infighting and debate.

~ E. Manning

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