Could the Endangered Species Act itself become endangered? Many conservation advocates think so, pointing to a recently proposed policy change that could make it harder for wildlife to receive protection under the 39-year-old law. And on Monday, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum added fuel to the fire, criticizing the ESA as a "radical ideology" that puts "critters above people" (see video below).

The policy-change debate began late last year, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed a new way of re-interpreting a five-word phrase in the ESA. The ESA currently defines an endangered species as one that's "in danger of extinction in all or a significant portion of its range," but it doesn't clearly define "significant portion of its range."

That phrase, sometimes abbreviated as "SPOIR," is important because it means a species doesn't need to be at risk of dying off everywhere to receive protection. But under the Obama administration's proposed changes, SPOIR would be redefined as a portion of habitat so vital that the overall species — not just its local population — would be in danger of extinction without it.

"This policy is like ignoring an injured patient in the emergency room and jumping into action only when he's at death's door," Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a recent press release. "If this policy had been in place when the Endangered Species Act was passed, the bald eagle would never have been protected in any of the lower 48 states, because there were still a lot of eagles up in Alaska." (Bald eagles were nearly wiped out of the contiguous U.S. last century, but the ESA helped them recover. They were removed from the endangered species list in 2007.)

The Center for Biological Diversity was one of 89 environmental groups that sent a letter of protest to the FWS last week, along with a similar letter signed by 97 conservation scientists. The conservation groups' letter expressed two main concerns: "(1) the proposed definition of 'significant,' which specifies that a portion of range can be considered significant only if loss of the species from that portion would threaten the species as a whole with extinction, and (2) the determination that lost historic range cannot qualify as a significant portion of range." The scientists' letter cited the same qualms, arguing that "if finalized, the draft policy will ... result in fewer imperiled species getting the protection they need to survive and recover."

These letters echoed an earlier sentiment from U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass, who wrote in January that the proposal sets the bar for protecting species "at much too high a threshold," and that it's inconsistent with Congress' original intent for the ESA.

In a joint statement issued in December, however, the Obama administration claimed the policy change would actually help federal agencies protect endangered species. "This proposed interpretation will provide consistency and clarity for the services and our partners, while making more effective use of our resources and improving our ability to protect and recover species before they are on the brink of extinction," said FWS Director Dan Ashe.

While scientists and conservationists battle the Obama administration over how to interpret the ESA, Santorum suggested Monday that the law itself is the problem. Speaking to supporters at the Gulf Coast Energy Summit in Mississippi, Santorum repeated his criticisms of what he calls the administration's "truly radical environmental agenda," highlighting the ESA as an example of how he differs not only from President Obama, but also from his Republican rivals.

"And again, a very clear contrast between me and the other candidates in this race — I was someone who supported, for example, changes to the Endangered Species Act, whereas Speaker [Newt] Gingrich blocked changes to the Endangered Species Act," Santorum said. "He believes it was a valuable piece of legislation, and it may have been, but it has been absolutely abused. ... There are so many places that we put critters above people. It's a radical ideology that says we are here to serve the Earth instead of man having dominion over the Earth to serve him and to be a good steward of that Earth."

See the video of Santorum's comments below:

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Endangered Species Act stirs new debates
While conservation groups clash with the feds over proposed changes to the ESA, Rick Santorum decries the entire law for putting 'critters above people.'