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Midnight Rule Changes By Bush Administration Will Undermine Endangered Species Protections, Says WWF

Polar Bear Listing Weakened by Administration's "Parting Shots"

WASHINGTON, December 12, 2008 – In its final days in office, the Bush Administration has announced two substantial rule changes that would seriously undermine the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), specifically gutting key protections for polar bears, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) officials said today.

The rules would expedite oil and gas exploration in the habitat of the polar bear, which was listed as threatened by the Department of the Interior earlier this year, and would eliminate a key environmental review process that ensures federal development projects do not cause additional harm to species that are at risk of extinction.

“These rules are the parting shots of an Administration that has consistently ignored or undermined the protections of our nation’s threatened and endangered species,” said Jason Patlis, WWF vice president for US government relations.  “WWF strongly opposes these midnight rule changes and urges the incoming Administration to take prompt steps to undo them when it assumes office next month.”

Patlis said the regulatory rule changes would weaken ESA protections across the country but would have a particularly harmful impact in the Alaskan Arctic, which is home to many at-risk species, including the polar bear, as well as the nation’s most productive fisheries.  It is also a region that the current administration has targeted for expanded and expedited oil and gas development.  “With these rule changes, the oil industry will be able to proceed full-bore with exploration, drilling and extraction activities without a thorough review of their potential environmental impact,” said Patlis.

The first rule weakens the ESA protections afforded to polar bears when the species was listed as threatened earlier this year.  Specifically, the rule states that oil and gas development can proceed in polar bear habitat without review of the impact such activities might have on the species.  

The second rule significantly narrows the requirement that development activities by federal agencies must be reviewed by government biologists to ensure the projects would not have an adverse impact on species protected under the ESA.  WWF opposed both rule changes in formal comments submitted to the USFWS, which can be found at http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/finder/polarbear/policy.html.

WWF Comments to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service on amendments to Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act

“The aggressive push for oil and gas development ignores consideration of any cumulative impact of these activities with other ongoing threats to Arctic ecosystems and resources, such as global warming and ocean acidification,” Patlis said, who noted that the Bush Administration has opened Alaska’s waters to increased drilling as a record rate.

 “We call on President-elect Obama to move swiftly in taking steps to reverse the irresponsible decisions that have been made today. In addition, we call for immediate action to halt the current aggressive course of oil and gas development in the Arctic, which is exacerbating an already unstable global climate, until a deliberate, rational and comprehensive Arctic conservation and energy plan can be designed and implemented.”