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What's Salazar Got Against The Polar Bear?

The honeymoon between environmental groups and the Obama Interior Department is now decidedly over, at least when it comes to endangered-species protections. As Daniel Schulman reports over at Mother Jones, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has decided not to add the yellow-billed loon to the endangered-species list, instead putting it on a waiting list of species to be given official endangered status once the agency can come up with guidelines for their protection. The FWS says that the decision to put the loon on the waiting list was nothing more than a concession to its limited staff time and budget for crafting new endangered-species rules. But environmental groups like the Center For Biological Diversity argue that the agency’s real motivation was a desire not to interfere with oil drilling that’s slated to occur in the loon’s Alaskan breeding grounds.

This may seem like a minor quibble—the loon is just one species, and with population numbers still in the tens of thousands, it’s not going extinct anytime soon—but it may be a sign of bigger endangered-species fights to come. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar now has to decide whether to reverse three last-minute changes that the Bush administration made to the way the Endangered Species Act is enforced. Due to some language inserted into a recent appropriations bill, the Interior Department has specific Congressional authorization to rescind these regulatory changes, but the authorization expires on May 10.

The first regulatory change that Salazar has to decide whether or not to undo allows federal agencies like the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management to consult their own biologists—rather than biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service—to determine whether a project would have an impact on endangered species. Environmentalists worry (probably correctly) that allowing agencies to “self-consult” would make them more likely to ignore endangered-species concerns. The other two changes aim to prevent environmental groups from using the Endangered Species Act to force the government to take action on global warming. They make it impossible for an environmental group to sue to stop the construction of, say, a coal power plant because of the harm that the plant’s emissions would cause to an endangered species—say, the polar bear—that is being impacted by global warming.

t’s easy to see why Salazar, as a moderate Western Democrat—or the Obama political team, charged with convincing an occasionally-skeptical public to take action on global warming—would be hesitant to undo these regulatory changes. Having greenhouse-gas regulations written by a judge whose main concern was the protection of bears would be not just a policy nightmare but a political nightmare as well. There may be some sense in using existing environmental laws to start regulating greenhouse emissions, if only as a way to force Congress to get serious about cap and trade. But surely it is better do to so via the Clean Air Act—which aims to protect human health as well as the biosphere—rather than the Endangered Species Act, which for many people symbolizes the alleged “trees before people” attitude of the hard-line environmental movement. Salazar most likely realizes this, which is why these Endangered Species Act changes may be the first big issue on which he and the major environmental groups part ways.

(Flickr photo credit: floridapfe)

--Rob Inglis