SALEM &

The Bush administration's plan to change the way the federal government decides whether plants and wildlife deserve protection is drawing mixed reviews from Republican Sen. Gordon Smith and his Democratic challenger, Jeff Merkley.




Smith, while not offering a blanket endorsement of the plan, said it could make the federal Endangered Species Act "more efficient" by striking a better balance between protecting jobs and protecting endangered plants and animals.




Merkley, speaker of the Oregon House, was skeptical of what he called an 11th-hour proposal from the Bush administration, which he said has "failed to set aside politics" and has tried to move away from reliance on the views of government scientists.




The two contenders in Oregon's hotly contested Senate race offered their initial assessments of the Bush's administration's proposal to change how the Endangered Species Act is implemented.




On Monday, the Interior Department unveiled a plan under which independent scientific reviews, which for three decades have been required to determine the protection status of potentially endangered species, would be eliminated.




Instead, individual federal agencies would determine whether protected species would be imperiled by agency projects.




Smith, who campaigned today in Ashland, indicated he thinks the plan is a step in the right direction.




"The Endangered Species Act is failing in its mission to recover species and is crippling rural economies," the GOP senator said in a prepared statement. "A new system should strike a balance between protecting jobs and protecting the environment."




Conservationists said the Bush plan could dramatically weaken what has long been seen as a crucial law saving plants, animals, birds and fish from extinction.




Merkley, in a prepared statement, expressed misgivings about the plan.




He said the next Congress and the new president "will need to review this proposal to ensure we have a balanced approach to job creation and protection of our critical natural resources."