ENDANGERED SPECIES:

Interior sends revised consultation rule to OMB

The Interior Department is proceeding with a final rule revamping changes that the Bush administration made to Endangered Species Act regulations in its final months.

The department sent a final rule on ESA consultations to the White House Office of Management and Budget yesterday, OMB said. The move suggests Interior will use authority given it by Congress in a recent spending bill to fast-track the regulatory rewrite without going through the normal full review process.

At issue is the Bush administration's revision of a rule that required federal agencies to consult with Fish and Wildlife Service biologists before undertaking actions that might threaten a protected species. The Bush rule made biological consultations optional, allowing agencies to proceed with projects if they maintained there would be little threat to a species.

Congressional Democrats and environmental groups widely criticized the rule revision -- both for its substance and for the way it was done. The Bush administration proposed the overhaul in August and expedited its review of public comments to put the final rule in place by December.

Congress gave the Obama administration authority to throw out the ESA regulations without going through the normal public notice and comment process. The fiscal 2009 omnibus appropriations bill gives Interior until May 9 to overturn two ESA provisions: the consultation rule and a special rule for the polar bear that explicitly exempts greenhouse gases from Endangered Species Act regulation.

Interior has sent OMB a rewrite of only the wildlife consultation rule, not the polar bear rule.

Environmental groups and high-ranking congressional Democrats have asked the administration to use the authority to overturn both rules. A group of high-profile senators sent a letter yesterday urging their reversal. A group of 44 House Democrats, including seven committee leaders, sent a similar request earlier this month.

But Republicans have balked, saying changes should go through the full review process.

The OMB review is welcome news for wildlife advocates, who have been concerned that the administration would not push forward changes to the rules. At a meeting with environmental groups yesterday, Interior officials said all options were still on the table, according to advocates at the meeting.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said he opposed the Bush administration's changes. But a memorandum from President Obama last month gave him some reprieve. It directs federal agencies to use their discretion to continue to require wildlife consultations.

Wildlife advocates say Obama's directive is helpful but does not go far enough. The memorandum does not overturn all of the regulatory changes, which also narrowed some of the factors that federal officials need to consider in wildlife consultations.

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