updated 3/28/2007 5:13:18 PM ET 2007-03-28T21:13:18

The U.S. Interior Department is considering a broad revamping of how it protects animals and plants in danger of extinction by giving state governors more say and adopting changes that critics contend would reduce the number of species that will be saved.

Details of some of the proposed changes surfaced Tuesday in a number of draft Interior Department documents released by environmentalists, who said in total they would amount to a gutting of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Department spokesmen said the draft proposals are under review, and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has made no decision whether to proceed.

“The focus is how we can do a better job of recovering more species,” department spokesman Hugh Vickery said in an interview. He called the documents that have surfaced preliminary or outdated.

“There’s not going to be anything done to damage our ability to protect endangered species,” and the aim is to make the federal law work better, said Chris Tollefson, a spokesman for the department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the federal law.

Some of the proposed changes are outlined in a 117-page draft regulation and in a half-dozen separate memorandums, some dating back to last summer and others as recent as mid-February. They have been circulated within the department and at related federal agencies for review.

Activists see 'rewrite'
The proposed changes “touch on every key program under the Endangered Species Act. It is a rewrite from top to bottom,” said Kieran Suckling, of the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group.

Jan Hasselman, an attorney in Seattle with Earthjustice, who is involved in a number of lawsuits involving endangered species, said if the proposed changes are implemented, “It will make it more difficult to list species and fundamentally weaken the protection the act offers.”

Some of the proposals would make obscure changes in how the law is implemented while others would be more direct, said Hasselman, who has analyzed the documents. Together they would “fundamentally gut the intent” of the law protecting species in danger of extinction.

One proposed change would narrow when species can be considered in danger of extinction. Currently that is widely interpreted as in some time, as the statute directs, “in the foreseeable future.” The draft papers suggest a more specific timetable of 20 years for some species and a specific number of generations for others, said Hasselman.

“This would severely limit listing of new endangered species,” he said.

Also being considered is giving more power to states to create species recovery plans and in determining what plants and animals get protection, including the ability of governors to block attempts to reintroduce species in their states.

If governors had such power, gray wolves would not have re-emerged in Idaho or Montana, nor would the grizzly have been reintroduced to Idaho, Suckling said in a telephone interview.

Interior's view
“What we want to do is work more closely with states,” said Vickery, but the department has no intention of turning authority over to the states.

The department also hopes to narrow the geographic range over which a species must be protected. Protection would be limited to a plant or animal’s current habitat and not the geographic region it has historically occupied. That view was outlined in a solicitor general's report announced last week. Another proposal would allow logging, development and other projects even if they are a threat to a species, as long as they do not “hasten” its extinction. Environmentalists said currently no projects are allowed if they have any impact on a listed species.

Vickery said the 117-page document, which includes many of the proposed changes, “is old. It does not represent the latest thinking by the Fish and Wildlife Service. ... Recommendations are still being floated.”

Daniel Patterson, of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which put the documents on its web site Tuesday, said the memos have been circulated among agencies outside the Interior Department, suggesting the proposals are in the late stage of consideration.

“We hope Interior will back off on this. ... It’s a radical weakening of the Endangered Species Act,” said Patterson.

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