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38 scientists sign on letter to protest interpretation of Endangered Species Act by administration

A grizzly bear at Yellowstone National Park could be affected by a new Bush administration interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. Ap photo

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — More than three dozen scientists
have signed a letter to protest a new Bush administration
interpretation of the Endangered Species Act, saying it jeopardizes
animals such as wolves and grizzly bears.

The proposed policy revision would enable the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service to protect animals and plants only where they are
battling for survival. The agency would not have to restore the
animals in areas where they have died out, or protect them where
they're in good shape.

The proposed changes were being sent this week to Interior
Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and leaders of congressional committees
that oversee the department. The changes were revealed last month
in draft department documents released by environmentalists, who
said the changes would amount to a gutting of the federal
Endangered Species Act.

Interior Department officials said then that the drafts were
still under review and that no decision had been made on whether to
proceed.

The proposed changes would "have real and profoundly
detrimental impacts on the conservation of many species and the
habitat upon which they depend,'' said the letter, signed by 38
prominent wildlife biologists and environmental ethics specialists.

The scientists wrote that the proposal would have allowed the
bald eagle to become extinct in the lower 48 states.

The new policy would give the department an excuse to avoid
adding new species to the list, increasing the likelihood of
extinctions, said Michael Nelson, an environmental ethicist at
Michigan State University.

Nelson and John Vucetich, a wildlife biologist at Michigan
Technological University, circulated the letter.

Interior spokesman Hugh Vickery said senior career biologists
who run the program are supportive of the proposal and believe it
will enable them to "focus their limited resources on areas where
species are truly threatened or endangered.''

Vickery said it was unclear how the revised policy would affect
particular species but accused the critics of exaggerating. He
dismissed as "complete nonsense'' the suggestion it would have
doomed the bald eagle everywhere but Alaska if it had been in
effect decades ago.

The revision was outlined in a legal analysis by Interior
Department Solicitor David Bernhardt that was released in late
March. Bernhardt said the department needed to reconsider its
definition of "endangered'' because federal judges had rejected
its previous reading of the law in eight of 10 cases since 2000.

Those rulings came after environmentalist groups sued the
wildlife service for refusing to add species such as the
flat-tailed horned lizard and Florida black bear to the endangered
list.

The debate centers on a provision in the Endangered Species Act
of 1973 requiring the government to list any plant or animal "in
danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its
range.''

Bernhardt disagreed with court rulings that "range'' includes
areas where species lived previously but are gone because of
habitat loss or other reasons. What matters, he said, is whether
they're declining in areas they now occupy.

Bernhardt's definition of "range'' would allow the department
to settle for keeping remnants of a species intact somewhere, but
wouldn't have to return them where people drove them out, Vucetich
said.