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Tuesday was a mostly red-letter day for the environment. One Bush administration midnight rule on endangered species is history.

In mid-December, former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne issued a rule allowing government agencies to decide on their own whether a project would harm an imperiled plant or animal without consulting with either the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, depending on the species.....

President Obama called for a review of the rule last month. Today, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Kempthorne's successor, and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said in a joint statement that scientific evidence justified restoring the independent reviews that Fish and Wildlife and NOAA had conducted for decades.

"By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law," Salazar said. "Because science must serve as the foundation for decisions we make, federal agencies proposing to take actions that might affect threatened and endangered species will once again have to consult with biologists at the two departments."

The consultation with federal wildlife experts had been required before any federal action that could harm endangered species for more than two decades, and its restoration is key, allowed by a congressional provision passed on March 10 giving Salazar 90 days to reverse this and another important rule--that one on polar bears.

That's where the "but" comes on in this good news. From the Center for Biological Diversity:

Salazar, however, did not take action to rescind a rule that sharply limits protections for the threatened polar bear despite having authority to rescind this rule as well.

"Secretary Salazar took an important step today toward restoring needed protections for endangered species," said Noah Greenwald, biodiversity program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "But he still needs to rescind the special rule for the polar bear, which amounts to a death sentence for the majestic bear because it exempts greenhouse gas emissions from regulation."

Congress passed legislation on March 10 giving Secretary Salazar power during the following 60 days to rescind both rules with the stroke of a pen until May 9. Should Salazar fail to rescind the "special rule" for the polar bear, he will severely undermine protection for the species. The rule prohibits regulation of any activities threatening the polar bear that occur outside of the Arctic. The polar bear, however, is endangered precisely because of activities occurring outside the Arctic, namely emission of greenhouse gases and resulting warming that is leading to the rapid disappearance of summer sea ice.

"The polar bear’s Arctic sea-ice habitat is melting away," said Greenwald. "If the special rule is not struck down, the polar bear is likely to be the first large mammal to go extinct due to global warming in the United States."

The polar bear ruling is more controversial because of the huge scope of regulating greenhouse gases. Which also makes it particularly critical. Salazar has until May 9 to make a decision on whether that rule is revoked.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Wed Apr 29, 2009 at 08:08 AM PDT.

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