Endangered species protections rightfully strengthened

President Barack Obama increased protection for endangered plants and animals after shelving a Bush-era policy Tuesday. Conservation groups have praised the president’s removal of the policy, which weakened the Endangered Species Act. This decision was part of Obama’s series of sweeping changes intended to improve the U.S. environmental policy.

The old administration rule was finalized in December and allowed government agencies to decide for themselves whether the construction of highways, dams, mines and other projects would harm protected animals and plants in the area. These regulations were clearly meant to reduce the rights of endangered species in favor of development.

Obama issued a presidential memorandum that shelved the policy so it may be reviewed and improved. This move has restored environmental protection by requiring all projects to be reviewed by an independent group of government scientists. Now that actual experts are once again assessing projects, endangered species are less likely to be harmed.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a national conservation group, was critical of the old Bush policy and sued to have it overturned. Director Kieran Suckling praised Obama and told MSNBC, “Obama has swiftly delivered on his campaign promise to reverse Bush’s anti-endangered species regulations. He has restored independent, scientific oversight to the heart of the Endangered Species Act.”

Democrats in Congress are also attempting to remove restraints on the Endangered Species Act as part of a provision to the 2009 omnibus fiscal spending bill. The provision was opposed by Alaskan senators Lisa Murkowski (R) and Mark Begich (D) because it includes the repeal of a specific regulation that limited protection for polar bears.

Sen. Begich proposed a 60-day waiting period before the regulations could be repealed. According to the Los Angeles Times, Begich said the lack of a waiting period “allows the secretaries to make dramatic changes in rules and regulations without having to comply with multiple long-standing federal laws that require public notice and public comment by the American people and knowledgeable scientists.”

The polar bear was placed on the endangered species list in May, and it was the first animal to become endangered because of global warming. However, the Bush administration made certain that the designation would not affect oil and natural gas drilling in Alaska, nor would it require regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

If the spending bill is passed successfully, Congress will be able to take real steps toward the protection of polar bears. All plant and animal species will benefit from stricter environmental policies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists more than 1,000 animals and nearly 500 plants as threatened or endangered, and many of these species are jeopardized by human development and expansion.

Obama’s actions are a good start toward helping endangered species that suffered under less-stringent Bush policies. However, this change may have come too late for some American species.

On Mar. 3, Suckling sent a letter to members of the CBD regarding the death of the last known living jaguar in the United States, a species that once ranged from California to the Appalachian Mountains. The jaguar, known as Macho B, had been tracked and studied by the CBD for 15 years. The jaguar was euthanized because it was suffering from kidney failure, a possible result of repeated capturing.

In Suckling’s letter, he said, “The emotional and scientific loss of this one-of-a-kind animal, Macho B, comes just weeks before the CBD will be arguing its jaguar case in federal district court in Tucson, Ariz. The case is against a Bush-era U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refusal to develop a recovery plan and designate critical habitat for the jaguar.”

The Obama administration must continue to increase protection for endangered species, as well as work with conservation groups to bring these species back from the brink so none may face the tragedy of extinction.

Michael Hardcastle is a freshman majoring in mass communications.