By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
Wed Apr 25, 2007 8:36PM EDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Bush administration plan to change rules of the Endangered Species Act protecting American wildlife drew pointed questions on Wednesday from five U.S. senators, who called the proposed changes "troubling."
The senators posed 15 questions to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, asking for full responses within one month, with no forward movement on rule-making until they are answered.
"If the draft revisions had been in place thirty years ago, it is hard to imagine that we ever could have achieved the successes -- with bald eagles, grizzly bears, sea turtles, sea otters and many other species -- of which we now are deservedly proud," the senators wrote in a letter to Kempthorne.
The letter was signed by independent senators Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernard Sanders of Vermont, and Democrats Barbara Boxer of California, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Benjamin Cardin of Maryland.
An Interior Department spokesman, Hugh Vickery, said the proposed rules the senators questioned were part of an old document not now under consideration. He said the department is looking for recommendations on how to administer the Endangered Species Act more consistently.
Environmental activists raised alarms about the draft rules change last month, saying the revisions would weaken the act so much that about 80 percent of the 1,300 species now on the endangered list would lose protection.
The activists also said government documents they obtained indicate revisions were being made as recently as February.
Among other things, the lawmakers asked how the proposed changes would improve wildlife conservation and recovery and which industry or commercial groups had "input" on them.
The National Audubon Society's Mike Daulton criticized the Bush administration. "The public is clamoring for conservation solutions to problems like energy and global warming and what they're getting are half-baked ideas like gutting the Endangered Species Act and shutting down wildlife refuges," Daulton said in an e-mail.
Daulton referred to problems caused by long-running money troubles in the National Wildlife Refuge System, the subject of a report released on Wednesday by a coalition of conservation and sporting groups.
The report, "Restoring America's Wildlife Legacy 2007," said U.S. wildlife refuges are operating at half the funding levels needed for proper maintenance, and recommended $765 million in annual funding.
David Eisenhauer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has responsibility for the refuges, acknowledged the financial problems.
"Do we repair this road or do we build an addition to a visitor center? (Regional officials) are really going through a soul searching now in terms of priorities, with the ultimate goal of being able to carry out their trust responsibilities," Eisenhauer said by telephone.