White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel issued the memorandum Tuesday shortly after Obama took the oath of office at noon on the steps of the Capitol Building.
The freeze halts publication of federal regulations planned under the Bush administration but not yet published in the Federal Register.
President George W. Bush used his executive powers to issue new regulations before leaving office, a usual practice during transitions.
Wildlife conservationists say the freeze will delay and possibly prevent the removal of gray wolves from the federal endangered species list in Montana, Idaho, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, and also in portions of Washington, Oregon, Utah, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity says the pause will afford President Obama and his new Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar the opportunity to rethink the previous administrationís efforts to remove wolves from the endangered species list.
Salazar, a fifth-generation Coloradan who served as the stateís U.S. senator, attorney general and director of natural resources, was confirmed Tuesday by a unanimous vote in the U.S. Senate to head the Department of the Interior, the nationís largest land and wildlife conservation agency. He started work in his new job this morning.
Gray wolf in the northern Rockies (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
"Rather than remove protections from wolves in a piecemeal fashion, in the isolated locations where they have finally begun to recover from past persecution," Robinson said, "the Obama administration should develop and implement a national gray-wolf recovery plan that will ensure the survival of these magnificent animals."
On January 14, in what conservationists view as a last-ditch effort by the Bush administration to undermine environmental protections, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Northern Rockies gray wolf will be taken off the Endangered Species List.
Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said, "This blatantly political maneuver is hardly surprising. The Bush administration has been trying to strip Endangered Species Act protections from the Northern Rockies wolf since the day it took office - no matter the dire consequences of delisting wolves prematurely and without adequate state protections in place."
Two previous attempts to remove protections from the wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains have been struck down by federal courts.
"The Bush administration is forcing the future of wolves in the region to play out in the courts by finalizing a delisting rule in its last hours in office," Schlickeisen said. "We intend to challenge this poorly constructed decision in court as soon as the law allows. It is outrageous that the Bush administration has chosen to create this unnecessary legal problem for the new Obama administration to deal with as it takes office."
Announcing the delisting, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett said the success of gray wolf recovery efforts in the northern Rockies has contributed to expanding populations of wolves that no longer require the protection of the Act.
"Wolves have recovered in the Great Lakes and the northern Rocky Mountains because of the hard work, cooperation and flexibility shown by States, tribes, conservation groups, federal agencies and citizens of both regions," said Scarlett. "We can all be proud of our various roles in saving this icon of the American wilderness."
But wildlife conservationists disagree. Gray wolves are gone from over 95 percent of their historic range, including on millions of acres of national forests, national parks and Bureau of Land Management public lands whose ecological health has suffered in the absence of wolves, conservationists contend.
In the northern Rocky Mountains, wolf numbers are too low and populations too fragmented to ensure long-term survival, Robinson says.
The Bush administration intended to delist wolves in Idaho and Montana even though those states are inhabited by only 75 breeding pairs of wolves, far below the hundreds of breeding animals wildlife scientists say are necessary to maintain population viability without debilitating genetic problems.
Even these 75 breeding pairs are not secure since the Idaho and Montana state wolf management plans allow for killing of wolves, including a majority of the wolves in Idaho.
Schlickeisen said, "If allowed to stand, this rule would mean that the Northern Rockies wolf population could be slashed by as much as two-thirds, placing approximately 1,000 of the regionís roughly 1,450 wolves in peril. This is a loss from which they most likely would be unable to recover."
The Fish and Wildlife Service and its predecessor agency were responsible for the extermination of wolves throughout much of the 20th century on behalf of the livestock industry.
Gray wolves survived in small numbers in the upper Midwest and expanded under the protections of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Wolves began recolonizing northern Montana and Idaho on their own in the 1980s, and numbers grew significantly after the 1995 and 1996 reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
Under an exception to the Endangered Species Act, Fish and Wildlife Service actions have resulted in the federal killing on behalf of the livestock industry of 931 wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains and at least 1,951 wolves in the Great Lakes region from 1996 through 2008.
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