updated 5/25/2007 4:50:03 PM ET 2007-05-25T20:50:03

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said Friday he has scrapped a proposal that critics said would protect fewer rare plants and animals from extinction.

Kempthorne said that while he doesn’t think Congress should change the Endangered Species Act, the department is still looking for ways to change how the law is enforced.

Environmentalists in March had made public a draft of rule changes the Interior Department was considering that they said would reduce the number of species that could be saved. They said the draft changes were so broad they amounted to gutting the program.

“That predated me. I’ve put a stop to that,” Kempthorne said during a lunch with a small group of reporters marking his first anniversary as interior secretary. He did not elaborate on what kind of changes are still under review.

Noah Greenwald, a biologist in Portland, Ore., for the Center for Biological Diversity, said he remains concerned that the department is considering regulatory changes that will make it easier to remove some animals, such as the gray wolf, from the protection of the law or make it harder to list a specie that is at risk.

Under one change proposed in the earlier draft, it would no longer be considered important to protect the historic range of a specie — only its current location. That could keep the increasingly rare Pacific Fisher, a mink-like creature, from being reintroduced in areas of the Northwest where it once thrived, and increase its likelihood of extinction, said Greenwald.

"Kempthorne has been a disaster for endangered species," Greenwald said, adding that while 279 species have been declared "candidates" for listing as endangered, and three have been recommended for "emergency" listing, none has been added since Kempthorne became secretary.

Kempthorne said Fish and Wildlife Service officials are frustrated that the federal law has not protected more species and that rules implementing it need improvement.

“We’re seriously looking at that,” said Kempthorne. He did not provide further details except to say he though more emphasis should be given to recovery “so that we do not wait until you’re at a point where a species is on the brink.”

On other matters, Kempthorne said that lessons learned two years ago, when hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, might help to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season.

But he could not say the region is less vulnerable to disruptions than two years ago.

"It depends on the hurricane," said Kempthorne. "Our intent would be that we would limit disruptions."

Several federal agencies, including Interior, and the oil industry have planned a briefing next week to outline what steps have been taken to improve safeguards of Gulf oil and gas structures and ways they hope to keep oil and gas flowing if a storm hits.

On other matters, Kempthorne said:

  • The department has created a special task force to examine how climate change might impact species survival and other issues under its jurisdiction, such the impact warming would have on water supplies.
  • The national parks need to be modernized, using interactive technologies that allow people, especially youngsters, to learn more about the parks when they visit.
  • He is concerned that "drug cartels" peddling amphetamines are targeting remote Indian reservations, adding to the drug problem among Native Americans. He said he intends to increase the number of drug enforcement agents to try to deal with the problem.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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