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Associated Press

Feds Rush To Ease Endangered Species Rules

15 reviewers, 200,000 comments, 32 hours to go through all of them

Dina Cappiello

This undated photograph released by Defenders of Wildlife shows the gray wolf. Although the wolf was recently returned the Endangered Species list, the Bush adminstration is using underhanded tactics to push through changes. Rushing to ease endangered species rules before President Bush leaves office, Interior Department officials are attempting to review 200,000 comments from the public in just 32 hours. (AFP/Defenders of Wildlife)

WASHINGTON - Rushing to ease endangered species rules before
President Bush leaves office, Interior Department officials are
attempting to review 200,000 comments from the public in just 32 hours,
according to an e-mail obtained by The Associated Press.

The Fish
and Wildlife Service has called a team of 15 people to Washington this
week to pore through letters and online comments about a proposal to
exclude greenhouse gases and the advice of federal biologists from
decisions about whether dams, power plants and other federal projects
could harm species. That would be the biggest change in endangered
species rules since 1986.

In an e-mail last week to Fish and
Wildlife managers across the country, Bryan Arroyo, the head of the
agency's endangered species program, said the team would work eight
hours a day starting Tuesday to the close of business on Friday to sort
through the comments. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's office,
according to the e-mail, will be responsible for analyzing and
responding to them.

The public comment period ended last week, which initiated the review.

Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., whose own
letter opposing the changes is among the thousands that will be
processed, called the 32-hour deadline a "last-ditch attempt to
undermine the long-standing integrity of the Endangered Species

At that rate, according to a committee aide's
calculation, 6,250 comments would have to be reviewed every hour. That
means that each member of the team would be reviewing at least seven
comments each minute.

It usually takes months to review public
comments on a proposed rule, and by law the government must respond
before a rule becomes final.

"It would seem very difficult for
them in four days to respond to so many thoughtful comments in an
effective way," said Eric Biber, an assistant professor at the
University of California at Berkeley School of Law. Along with other
law professors across the country, Biber sent in 70 pages of comment.

and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall told the AP on Tuesday that the
short time frame for processing the comments was requested by
Kempthorne and would set a record.

"There is an effort here to
see if this can be completed" before the administration is out, Hall
said. He said the goal was to have the rule to the White House by early
November. In May, the administration set a Nov. 1 deadline for all
final regulations.

How fast the rule is finished could determine how hard it is to undo.

new administration could freeze any pending rules. But if the
regulation is final before the next president takes office, reversing
it would require going through the entire review and public comment
period again - a process that could take months and that sometimes has
taken years.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama
already has said he would reverse the proposal. Congress also could
overturn the rules through legislation, but that could take even
longer. Sen. John McCain's campaign has not taken a position on the
Bush administration's proposed change in endangered species regulations.

said the move was the latest attempt by the Bush administration to
overrule Congress, which for years has resisted efforts by conservative
Republicans to make similar changes by amending the law.

from environmental groups and Democratic leaders prompted the Interior
Department to extend the public comment period from 30 days to 60 days.

has lit a fire under these guys to get this done in due haste," said
Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive director of Defenders of Wildlife and
the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Clinton.

Interior Department received approximately 300,000 comments over the
60-day comment period, many critical of the changes. About 100,000 of
them were form letters, Hall said.

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