Saturday, December 13, 2008

New Rules Endanger Cape Species

Experts: New rules endanger Cape species

December 13, 2008 6:00 AM

Animal advocates say they are worried about the Bush administration's decision this week to loosen regulations protecting endangered species, including the large whales.

The changes, which would reduce the involvement of federal scientists and block the use of the Endangered Species Act to combat global warming, go into effect in about 30 days and were completed in four months.

They will eliminate some of the mandatory, independent reviews that government scientists have performed for 35 years on dams, power plants, timber sales and other projects, which developers and other federal agencies have blamed for delays and cost increases.

The rules also prohibit federal agencies from evaluating the effect on endangered species and the places they live from a project's contribution to increased global warming.

Current rules require biologists in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service to sign off on projects even when it is determined that they are not likely to harm species.

Interior Department officials described the changes as "narrow," but acknowledged that the regulations were controversial inside the agency.

Federal agencies still could seek the expertise of federal wildlife biologists on a voluntary basis, and other parts of the law will ensure that species are protected, they said.

"Nothing in this regulation relieves a federal agency of its responsibilities to ensure that species are not harmed," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said in a conference call with reporters.

But others said the federal Act was gutted.

Among the animals in the Cape and Islands region protected under the Endangered Species Act are large whales, sea turtles, plovers, terns and more, said Robert Prescott of the Massachusetts Audubon Society in Wellfleet.

There would be less oversight of local projects, such as the expansion of seaports, construction of outfall pipes and the relocation of international shipping lanes, local advocates for animals said.

"The problem is, we are all working in the endangered species field with a precautionary principle," said Charles "Stormy" Mayo, a whale expert with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. "If you're going to make an error, you should make it on the side of caution. It's very clear that the changes that have been made do not add to the caution."

Between 1998 and 2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service conducted 300,000 consultations. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which evaluates projects affecting marine species, conducts about 1,300 reviews a year.

In the Northeast, there are about 200 to 300 formal and informal consultations annually, said Teri Frady of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Members of Congress, including Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., sent a letter in early September to Kempthorne and Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez objecting to the "weakening" of the long-standing consultative roles of the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.

The representatives questioned whether an agency such as the Department of Homeland Security would hire qualified biologists to assess the effects of a project on endangered species.

"The people who are doing the consulting are the same people doing the work," said Jake Levenson of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouthport. "The review can be less critical."

President-elect Barack Obama has said he would work to review the changes. But because the rule takes effect before he is sworn in, he would have to restart the lengthy rule-making process. A House leader pledged to overturn the regulations using the Congressional Review Act after consulting with other Democratic leaders. The rarely used law allows Congress to review new federal regulations.

In a related development, the Interior Department also finalized Thursday a special rule for the polar bear, a species that was listed as threatened in May because of global warming. The rule would allow oil and gas exploration in areas where the bears live, as long as the companies comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.


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