Rewrite Would Weaken Endangered Species Act The Bush administration has been losing many Endangered Species Act cases in court. Now, it's in the midst of a major rewrite of the rules behind the landmark law — in part to make it harder for environmental groups to successfully sue the administration.

Rewrite Would Weaken Endangered Species Act

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

The Bush administration is working on a major rewrite of the rules the government uses to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports that leaked documents show that some of the changes might be contentious.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Dale Hall heads the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service. He says his staff has been considering a wide range of possible changes.

Mr. DALE HALL (Director, Federal Fish and Wildlife Service): We're looking at all aspects of the other law. We're trying to figure out all those things that will help us be better at recovering species.

SHOGREN: Hall says it's too early to say which changes the administration will include in any official proposal. And he tried to play down the significance of the leaked documents that first showed up on One is hundreds of pages long.

Mr. HALL: It's really a starting point, a beginning of a process. It's not one that represents any of the latest thinking that we have.

SHOGREN: The documents were given to environmentalists by federal employees worried the changes could hurt rare species. And Kieran Suckling says the documents do reflect the agency's current thinking. He works for the Center for Biological Diversity. Suckling says the most important draft is dated last June but was updated recently.

Mr. KIERAN SUCKLING (Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Biological Diversity): Despite the administration's attempts to say this is all old stuff and it has nothing to do with what we're doing today, the paper trail clearly shows they're very current.

SHOGREN: There is one thing that government officials, environmentalists and industry groups agree on. The draft changes are designed to stop environmentalists from defeating the government in court. They've been doing that a lot lately.

John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation says in one case environmentalists were trying to get the government to make dam operators in the Pacific Northwest do more to protect endangered salmon.

Mr. JOHN KOSTYACK (Senior Counsel, National Wildlife Federation): The administration lost because they were arguing that they were not really responsible for the very endangered condition of the salmon. And as long as their project didn't worsen that very endangered situation, then they had no responsibility. The court said no.

SHOGREN: The judge ordered the government to do more to protect the salmon. Kostyack says under the leaked proposal the government's obligation would disappear.

Mr. KOSTYACK: As long as you weren't worsening an already bad situation, you have no responsibility.

That change also caught the eye of Damien Schiff, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. He represents industries and landowners who oppose government regulation.

Mr. DAMIEN SCHIFF (Pacific Legal Foundation): It certainly is an improvement from the perspective of the regulated community in favor of property rights.

SHOGREN: Another leaked proposal would end the requirement the government wildlife services weigh in when other agencies are considering permits for logging, mining and pesticide use. Jan Hasselman, a lawyer for Earthjustice, says the Bush administration has been trying to get rid of these so-called consultations for a long time.

Mr. JAN HASSELMAN (Attorney, Earthjustice): They tried a year or two ago to develop a process where the Environmental Protection Agency was no longer accountable under the Endangered Species Act for pesticides. But that effort was set aside by a federal judge here in Seattle.

SHOGREN: But it resurfaces in the draft. Damien Schiff, the property rights lawyer, says that will be good for his clients and help the government reverse its losing trend in court.

Mr. SCHIFF: The services would most likely see an increase in their winning percentage.

SHOGREN: One of the proposals that worries environmentalists most has to do with where a species would be protected. Kieran Suckling from the Center for Biological Diversity says under the proposal, rare species might only be protected in the small areas where they are doing the best.

Mr. KIERAN SUCKLING (Center for Biological Diversity): That's a problem because, by definition, most endangered species are absent from 90 percent of their range.

SHOGREN: He says under that rule many of the biggest endangered species success stories never would have happened. For instance, the bald eagle might have been protected only in Alaska, instead of being protected everywhere and staging a dramatic comeback.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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