The Obama administration said Tuesday it was overturning a rule change made in the final weeks of the Bush presidency.
Officials at the Interior and Commerce departments said they have reimposed the consultation requirement that assured the government's top biologists involved in species protection will have a say in federal action that could harm plants, animals and fish that are at risk of extinction.
Such consultation had been required for more than two decades until the Bush administration made it optional in rules issued last December, just weeks before the change in administrations. Environmentalists argued that the change severely reduced the protection afforded under the federal Endangered Species Act.
"By rolling back this eleventh-hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law" and that top science will be the foundation of the decision making, said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke added: "Our decision affirms the administration's commitment to using sound science to promote conservation and protect the environment."
Agencies in the two department's share responsibility for managing and enforcing the Endangered Species Act and employ the government's top scientists in species protection.
In March, President Barack Obama issued an executive order putting the Bush rule change on hold. Congress followed by giving specific authorization for the Interior and Commerce departments to revoke the action, avoiding a long and complicated regulatory process.
Environmentalists widely praised Tuesday's action, but some expressed dismay that Salazar didn't also rescind a rule that limits the protection to the polar bear, which last year was declared as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act because of disappearing Arctic sea ice as a result of climate change.
The Bush administration issued a rule that prohibits an agency from taking into account indirect adverse impacts on the polar bear from activities outside of the Arctic region: For example carbon dioxide emissions that are linked to global warming and, therefore, the loss of Arctic sea ice. Congress authorized that rule to be revoked as well, but the Interior Department said no decision had yet been made on the matter.
"From our perspective the job is half done," said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group. "The polar bear's Arctic sea ice habitat is melting away. If the (Bush) 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 end of the long-standing requirement - dating back to 1986 - of interagency consultation with the Interior and Commerce agencies on endangered species protection produced a firestorm in both Congress and within the environmental and conservation communities.
For years, agencies involved in thousands of federal activities - from issuing clean air rules to approving highway or dam construction- have had to consult not only their own experts but also biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to ensure the activities did not harm plants, animals or fish that are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Developers and business groups argued that the consultation caused unneeded delays and increased the cost of projects. The Bush administration made the independent consultation optional, arguing that it was a minor shift in policy.
One impetus for the rule change was concern by the Bush administration that the Endangered Species Act might be used as a back door to regulate greenhouse gases as a way to combat climate change. The Interior Department earlier had declared the polar bear a threatened species because of the loss of Arctic sea ice, a change attributed to global warming.
Salazar and Lock said the two departments will jointly decide if any changes are needed to improve the interagency consultation procedures.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, which is part of the Interior Department, has jurisdiction over plants and animals, while NOAA, part of the Commerce Department, deals with fish species that are at risk of extinction.