Alleging that long-standing endangered species protections are being “gutted,” California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to stop new rules by the Departments of Interior and Commerce that were made final Dec. 16 and would allegedly eliminate the mandate for scientific review of federal agency decisions that might affect endangered species.

Brown contends that the changes made in the waning days of the Bush administration would allow federal agencies to permit mining, logging and other commercial activities on federal land and other areas without obtaining review or comment from federal wildlife biologists on the environmental effects of these activities. Various energy projects could be among the commercial ventures involved.

“The Bush administration is seeking to gut the Endangered Species Act [ESA] on its way out the door,” Brown said. “This is an audacious attempt to circumvent a time-tested statute that for 35 years has required scientific review of proposed federal agency decisions that affect wildlife.”

At the same time the rules were being finalized, the Interior Department’s inspector general submitted a report to Congress on Dec. 16 saying agency officials doctored scientific work to preclude certain species from receiving protections under the endangered species law (see NGI, Dec. 22, 2008).

The report focused on a number of ESA-related decisions made by Julie MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for Interior’s Fish and Wildlife and Parks. She resigned in May 2007 after an initial investigation confirmed a complaint that she “had bullied, insulted and harassed the professional staff of FWS [Fish and Wildlife Service] to change documents and alter biological reporting” with respect to the ESA program.

Regarding the new rules, Brown called the changes the “most significant” regarding endangered species in the last 20 years.

“The changes also eliminate the requirement to consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on species and ecosystems from proposed federal projects,” Brown said. “Federal agencies now no longer need to consider the possible adverse impacts on species like the polar bear from commercial projects that require federal approval or funding such as highway construction and coal-fired power plants.”

The California lawsuit was field Dec. 28 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleging that the Bush administration violated the ESA in three major ways: adopting regulations that are inconsistent with ESA; failing to consider the environmental ramifications of the new regulations; and not adequately considering public comments submitted by the California attorney general and other organizations and concerned citizens.

Brown said three similar lawsuits were filed earlier in December by environmental groups.

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