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Controversy erupts over Endangered Species Act

Congress and the Interior Department investigate whether the Bush administration undermined federal protections.

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From the day it became law 34 years ago, the federal Endangered Species Act has been politically hot – a flash point of contention between defenders of nature and advocates of economic progress. Now, the ESA is embroiled in new controversy.

Two different government entities are investigating decisions by Bush administration officials related to species recovery. In one, the US Interior Department is reviewing the scientific integrity of decisions under the law made by a political appointee, who recently resigned under fire. At the same time, Congress is investigating evidence that Vice President Dick Cheney interfered with decisions involving water in California and Oregon that resulted in the killing of tens of thousands of Klamath River salmon, some of which were listed as "threatened" species.

Both episodes illustrate what critics say is the Bush administration's resistance to the law.

During President Bush's time in the White House, the listing of endangered and threatened species has slowed down considerably. It's a fraction of the number his father made in four years (58 new listings compared with 231 by the senior Bush), and most of those were court-ordered.

New funding for protection of such species has been cut as well. As a result, 278 "candidate species" are waiting to join the list of 1,352 plant and animal species now listed as "endangered" or "threatened."

Scientists and activists see the ESA as the last chance for preventing extinction of dwindling plants and animals ranging from the obscure – the rock gnome lichen, for example – to the grizzly bear and other "charismatic megafauna."

But to developers, it can be a very costly impediment to business. And to farmers, ranchers, loggers, and others whose work is land-based, it can threaten a traditional way of life. Many fights over species protection have ended up in federal court.

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