From: Rod McGuirk, Associated Press
Published May 4, 2007 12:00 AM

Interior Secretary Says U.S. Must Focus on Preventing Species from Becoming Endangered

CANBERRA, Australia -- The U.S. interior secretary defended a new policy that makes it harder to list disappearing species as endangered, saying on Friday the government needs to focus less on lists and more on helping wildlife populations rebuild and stay strong.

"I think we need to put greater emphasis on recovery and efforts in that direction," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne told reporters in Australia, adding that only one percent of the 1,500 species listed as endangered in the past 30 years had recovered.

As an example, he said the U.S. government was moving to improve the habitat of the sage grouse, whose numbers are declining, so that that bird is never listed as endangered.

"If we can do that more often, I would much prefer that to waiting until we simply list something and move on and list the next species," he said. "So we're going to get out ahead of this."

Kempthorne is under fire over the U.S. government's new interpretation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The new reading of the law, proposed by the Interior Department, would enable the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to only consider areas where animals and plants are battling for survival when vetting them for endangered species status -- without taking into account areas where they have already been wiped out.

Critics say the new reading jeopardizes animals such as wolves and grizzly bears.

Kempthorne, in Canberra to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, said Friday he did not believe the new direction damaged his administration's environment credentials.

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.

Interior Department Solicitor David Bernhardt's legal analysis was released in March. He 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." The new reading would not include areas where a species had been wiped out as part of the range.

Source: Associated Press

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