Bush to relax endangered species rules

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Marine species in danger of becoming extinct could lose the protection of government experts who make sure projects don’t pose a threat, under regulations the Bush administration is set to put in place before President-elect Obama can reverse them.

The rules must be published Friday to take effect before Obama is sworn in Jan. 20. Otherwise, he can undo them with the stroke of a pen.

The Interior Department rushed to complete the rules in three months over the objections of lawmakers and environmentalists who argued that they would weaken how a landmark conservation law is applied.

A Nov. 12 version of the final rules obtained by the Associated Press has changed little from the original proposal, despite the more than 250,000 comments received since it was first proposed in August.

The rules eliminate the input of federal wildlife scientists in some endangered species cases, allowing the federal agency in charge of building, authorizing or funding a project to determine for itself if it is likely to harm endangered wildlife and plants.

Current regulations require independent wildlife biologists to sign off on these decisions before a project can go forward, at times modifying the design to better protect species.

The regulations also bar federal agencies from assessing emissions of the gases blamed for global warming on species and habitats, a tactic environmentalists have tried to use to block new coal-fired power plants.

Tina Kreisher, an Interior Department spokeswoman, could not confirm whether the rule would be published before the deadline, saying only that the White House was still reviewing it. But she said changes were being made based on the comments received.

“We started this; we want to finish this,” said Kreisher.

If the rules go into effect before Obama takes office, they will be difficult to overturn since it would require the new administration to restart the rule-making process.

Congress, however, could reverse the rules through the Congressional Review Act