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Kempthorne likely to seek Endangered Species Act changes

By Faith Bremner, Great Falls Tribune  10/16/06

WASHINGTON Conservation groups expect Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to seek major changes next year to a federal law that protects plants and wildlife from extinction, picking up where he left off nine years ago when he was in the U.S. Senate.

In 1998 as a senator from Idaho, Kempthorne nearly pushed a bipartisan bill through Congress that would have updated the now 33-year-old Endangered Species Act. The measure would have given landowners an incentive to work with federal authorities to help endangered species. It also would have given landowners more say over plans to protect species habitat and would have required more scientific review before species could be listed.

The bill fell apart when it was blocked in the House. Shortly afterward, Kempthorne became the governor of Idaho.

Critics complain that the endangered species law is too punitive and does not do enough to encourage landowners to protect and restore vital habitat. About 90 percent of endangered species in the United States exist on private land. The act forbids federal agencies from taking actions that jeopardize endangered species and it prohibits the public from harming them without a federal permit. The act helped save bald eagles, wolves and grizzly bears from extinction.

Environmental groups now say they expect Kempthorne to again try to push his ideas through Congress and change department regulations. While his earlier proposal was considered moderate by many, environmental groups worry the new version would tilt more toward landowners and developers.

But if Democrats win control of the House in November, Kempthorne would have to act more cautiously, said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton.

"The election will matter hugely," Clark said. "There should be no illusions about what could happen, particularly since it's the last two years (of the Bush administration). A lot of mischief could occur in two years."

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he supports updating the act, but any legislative proposal for change would have to be balanced between Republicans and Democrats or it won't pass.

"I want to ensure that any further reform is a common-sense solution that protects both wildlife and private property rights at the same time," Baucus said.

Kempthorne has not said whether he plans to try to change the Endangered Species Act, department spokesman Hugh Vickery said.

Since taking over Interior's reins from Gale Norton in June, Kempthorne has been holding a series of public listening sessions around the country on cooperative conservation, along with the secretaries of Commerce and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator and the head of the Council on Environmental Quality the White House's environmental office.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Kempthorne said he looked forward to "again being at the table discussing ways to improve the act and make it more meaningful in helping the very species that we're trying to save."

But environmentalists are wary of Kempthorne's record, opposing federal programs to recover threatened grizzly bears and endangered wolves when he was Idaho governor, said Liz Godfrey, program director for the Endangered Species Coalition.

"Given his record, it's potentially dangerous to open up the Endangered Species Act," said Godfrey, whose group opposed Kempthorne's 1998 bill. "I don't think (the act) needs to be changed. It needs to be funded. It has been consistently under funded over the course of the years

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