Passed in January 2009, the Bush-era rule lifted the requirement that federal agencies consult wildlife experts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before taking actions that could harm listed species. The Bush move allowed federal agencies to decide for themselves if their own projects, such as roads, dams and mines, would hurt species.
Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who head the two agencies that administer the Endangered Species Act, said their decision to again require consultation before action is based on sound science.
"By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law," Salazar said.
Chinook salmon in the Sacramento and Columbia rivers are listed as endangered. (Photo by Stanislaw Zurek)
"Because science must serve as the foundation for decisions we make, federal agencies proposing to take actions that might affect threatened and endangered species will once again have to consult with biologists at the two departments," he said.
"For decades, the Endangered Species Act has protected threatened species and their habitats," said Locke. "Our decision affirms the administration's commitment to using sound science to promote conservation and protect the environment."
In March, President Barack Obama directed the secretaries to review the previous administration's Section 7 regulation of the Endangered Species Act, which governs interagency consultation.
Congress, in the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act, specifically authorized the secretaries to revoke the regulation.
Locke and Salazar said the two departments will conduct a joint review of the 1986 consultation regulations that are now once again in effect to determine if any improvements should be proposed.
The Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973 to protect imperiled species from extinction, as well as conserve the ecosystems and habitats necessary for their survival. Today there are 1,009 species in the United States listed as endangered under the Act - 409 animals and 600 plants. An additional 162 animals and 146 plants are listed as threatened.
Environmentalists and scientists who had lobbied against making consultation discretionary were pleased with the decision.
Betsy Loyless, National Audubon Society senior vice president for advocacy and policy, said, "The Obama administration has given a great gift to wildlife and to future generations. Once again, our nation will follow the letter of the law and the advice of its own best experts before jeopardizing the future of threatened and endangered species."
The decision comes as President Obama prepares to mark his first 100 days in office on Wednesday.
Loyless said, "The President has capped his first hundred days with a serious step toward restoring our commitment to this nation's great natural heritage."
Last Friday, 1,300 biologists and three scientific societies representing some 20,000 scientists - The Ornithological Council, Society for Conservation Biology and the Wildlife Society - sent separate letters to the Interior and Commerce departments urging them to overturn the last-minute Bush rule change.
Endangered Stellar sea lions in western Alaska (Photo courtesy NOAA)
"Many federal agencies do not have the scientific expertise to determine the consequences of federal projects on endangered species and may have vested interests in the implementation of a project," said Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, who helped organize the scientists' letter.
Pimm said the Bush rule excluded from the process expert scientists who for decades have provided impartial review and critical analysis of proposed projects.
Alan Thornhill, an ecologist and executive director of the Society for Conservation Biology, said, "As the threats we face continue to evolve, federal scientists must be able to evaluate their consequences for imperiled species. Putting boundaries on the science that informs the Endangered Species Act fundamentally undermines the ability of science and scientists to protect our nation's biodiversity."
"Politics plays a huge role in such decisions," said Michael Hutchins, executive director and chief executive of The Wildlife Society. "Expert review and oversight are critical."
Francesca Grifo, director of Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program, said lifting the requirement for consultation was one of a number of ways the Bush administration weakened the Act, and more work remains to be done.
"Several last-minute Bush administration regulatory changes have undermined the scientific foundation of the Endangered Species Act, and today the Obama administration has begun to repair the damage," she said. "The message from tens of thousands of scientists around the country is clear - these unwarranted changes fundamentally undermine our ability to protect imperiled plants and animals."
"Today, the Obama administration restored critical checks and balances to protect our nation's biodiversity," said Grifo. "But there is much more to be done. The Obama administration must thoroughly review how science is used to ensure that our nation's imperiled species have a chance to survive - and thrive."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.