msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/28/2009 3:52:54 PM ET 2009-04-28T19:52:54

The Obama administration on Tuesday revoked a rule enacted toward the end of the Bush administration that it said undermined protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Federal agencies must "once again consult with federal wildlife experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the two agencies that administer the ESA — before taking any action that may affect threatened or endangered species," the Interior and Commerce departments said in a statement.

"By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department oversees Fish and Wildlife.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whose department oversees NOAA, added that "our decision affirms the administration’s commitment to using sound science to promote conservation and protect the environment."

For years, agencies involved in thousands of federal activities — from issuing clean air rules to approving highway or dam construction — have had to consult not only their own experts but also biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to ensure the activities did not harm plants, animals or fish that are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Bush made consultation optional
Then, last December, the Bush administration finalized a rule that allowed federal agencies to issue permits for mining, logging and other activities without consulting the Fish and Wildlife Service or NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service about endangered wildlife and plants.

The Bush administration made the consultation optional, arguing that it was a minor shift in policy.

In March, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum to put the regulation on hold pending a review.

Business and industry groups argued that the consultation process could result in delays and higher costs for projects, including those that will be funded by federal stimulus money.

Locke and Salazar said their departments would conduct a joint review of the 1986 consultation regulations to determine if any improvements should be proposed.

No ruling on polar bears
The Interior Department noted that Congress, in the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act, had given the Interior and Commerce secretaries the authorization to revoke the Bush-era rule as well as a separate one that bars regulation of any activities outside the Arctic that threaten the polar bear.

The Bush administration ruled that global warming does threaten the sea-ice habitat of polar bears, but moved to block the use of that rule to enact curbs on carbon dioxide and other emissions tied to warming.

"The polar bear’s Arctic sea ice habitat is melting away," said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity. "If the special rule is not struck down, the polar bear is likely to be the first large mammal to go extinct due to global warming in the United States."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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