Since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, agencies have been required to consult with experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service about whether a project is likely to harm one of the 1,353 threatened or endangered species in the U.S.
Between 1998 and 2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service performed 300,000 evaluations, according to the Associated Press.
Under the new rules, agencies would be able to make those decisions themselves. The rules also specify that agencies could not consider the projects' contribution to global warming in their analyses.
Environmental groups and congressional Democrats immediately condemned the proposal.
"Clearly, that's a case of asking the fox to guard the chicken coop," Bob Irvin, senior vice president of conservation programs at the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, told the Washington Post. He said that the original rules have provided "a giant caution light that made federal agencies stop and think about the impacts of their actions. What the Bush administration is telling those agencies is that they don't have to think about those impacts anymore."
But Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne defended the new proposal, calling it a "narrow regulatory change."
"These changes are designed to reduce the number of unnecessary consultations under the ESA so that more time and resources can be devoted to the protection of the most vulnerable species," Kempthorne said in an announcement.
The new rules use administrative powers to make changes to the Endangered Species Act that Congress has resisted in the past. They will be subject to a 30-day comment period, giving the Bush administration enough time to enact them before the November election. A new administration could freeze or reverse the regulations, but that process could take months. Congress could also overturn them, but that could take even longer, according to the AP.
"This proposed regulation is another in a continuing stream of proposals to repeal our landmark environmental laws through the back door," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement. "If this proposed regulation had been in place, it would have undermined our ability to protect the bald eagle, the grizzly bear and the gray whale."