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WED: Sheriff says "Rust" set showed "complacency" in handling weapons, + More

Andres Leighton
AP Photo
The entrance of the Bonanza Creek Film Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M. Actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun on the set of a Western being filmed at the ranch on Thursday, Oct. 21, killing the cinematographer.

Sheriff: Movie set showed 'some complacency' with weapons—Morgan Lee, Susan Montoya, Bryan, Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

Investigators said Wednesday that there was "some complacency" in how weapons were handled on the movie set where Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed a cinematographer and wounded another person, but it's too soon to determine whether charges will be filed.

Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza noted that 500 rounds of ammunition — a mix of blanks, dummy rounds and live rounds — were found while searching the set of the Western "Rust."

"Obviously I think the industry has had a record recently of being safe. I think there was some complacency on this set, and I think there are some safety issues that need to be addressed by the industry and possibly by the state of New Mexico," Mendoza told a news conference nearly a week after the shooting.

Authorities also confirmed there was no footage of the shooting, which happened during a rehearsal.

Investigators believe Baldwin's gun fired a single live round that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza.

Detectives have recovered a lead projectile they believe the actor fired last week. Testing is being done to confirm whether the projectile taken from Souza's shoulder was fired from the same long Colt revolver used by Baldwin. The FBI will help with ballistics analysis.

Two other guns were seized, including a single-action revolver that may have been modified and a plastic gun that was described as a revolver, officials said.

Souza, who was standing behind Hutchins, told investigators there should never be live rounds present near the scene.

"We suspect that there were other live rounds, but that's up to the testing. But right now, we're going to determine how those got there, why they were there because they shouldn't have been," Mendoza said.

District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said investigators cannot say yet whether it was negligence or by whom. She called it a complex case that will require more research and analysis.

"It will take many more facts, corroborated facts, before we can get to that criminal negligence standard," she said.

Investigators said they planned to follow up on reports of other incidents involving misfires with guns on the set.

Mike Tristano, a veteran armorer, or movie weapons specialist, was alarmed to hear that live rounds were mixed in with blanks and dummy rounds.

"I find that appalling," Tristano said. "In over 600 films and TV shows that I've done, we've never had a live round on set."

The shooting has baffled Hollywood professionals and prompted calls to better regulate firearms on sets or even ban them in the age of seamless computer-generated imagery. Court records say that an assistant director grabbed the gun from a cart and indicated the weapon was safe by yelling "cold gun."

The armorer on the Baldwin film, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, said she checked dummy bullets on the day of the shooting to ensure that none were "hot" rounds. She also told a detective that while the guns used for filming were locked up during a crew lunch break, ammunition was left on a cart unsecured, according to a search warrant released Wednesday ahead of the news conference.

Gutierrez Reed told a detective that no live ammo was ever kept on the set.

When reached Wednesday by The Associated Press, she declined to comment. She said Monday by text message that she was looking for a lawyer.

Assistant director David Halls, who handed the gun to Baldwin before the shooting, said Gutierrez Reed typically opened the hatch of the gun and spun the drum, though he couldn't recall if she did that before the shooting. He said he only remembered seeing three rounds in the gun, according to the warrant.

After the shooting, Halls took the gun to Gutierrez and said he saw five rounds in the gun, at least four of them were "dummy" rounds indicated by a hole on the side and a cap on the round. Halls said there was also a casing in the gun that did not have the cap and did not have the hole indicating it was a dummy, the warrant said.

Halls "advised the incident was not a deliberate act," according to the warrant, which was issued Wednesday in order to search a truck that was used on the set.

Baldwin, 63, who is known for his roles in "30 Rock," "The Departed" and "The Hunt for Red October" along with his impression of then-President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live," has described the killing as a "tragic accident."

The gun Baldwin used was one of three that the armorer had placed on a cart outside the building where a scene was being rehearsed, according to court records.

The production of "Rust" was beset by workplace disputes from the start in early October. Hours before the shooting, several camera crew members walked off the set amid discord over working conditions, including safety procedures.

Baldwin in his role as actor appeared unlikely to be held criminally or civilly liable for the tragedy. As a producer, however, he is among a long list of associates on the film who could face some sort of liability.

Concerns have been raised about Halls' safety record by colleagues on two previous productions. Halls has not returned phone calls and email messages seeking comment.

Rust Movie Productions, the production company, says it is cooperating with authorities and conducting its own internal review of procedures with the production shut down.

Mother sentenced in toddler son's 2019 death near Shiprock—Associated Press

A woman has been sentenced to five years in prison for the 2019 death of her toddler son, whom she left behind after driving while intoxicated in rural northwestern New Mexico.

Tonya Mae Dale was sentenced Monday in federal court in Albuquerque after previously pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the death of 21-month-old Kyron Kelewood, the Farmington Daily Times reported.

Dale said in a letter to District Judge Kea Riggs that her son would still be alive had she made better decisions.

Dale admitted to driving while intoxicated on alcohol and methamphetamine in an area north of Shiprock the night of June 26, 2019. With the car stuck, she took her son and an unidentified baby also riding with them while looking for help.

Dale left both children by an empty water tank the next morning and continued on.

By the time she returned with emergency personnel, Kyron had wandered off. His body was found the next day after a search by multiple agencies and volunteers.

An autopsy determined the boy had died from exposure to the weather and other elements. ___ This story has been changed to correct the defendant's name to Tonya Mae Dale, not Tonya Dale Male.

Female inmate escapes from a federal prison in Phoenix—Associated Press

Authorities are searching for an inmate who escaped from a federal prison in Phoenix.

Officials with the Federal Bureau of Prisons said 36-year-old Rosann Tercero was discovered missing early Tuesday morning from the minimum-security satellite camp next to the Federal Correctional Institution Phoenix.

The prison is located near Interstate 17 south of Anthem.

The U.S. Marshals Service, FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been notified and are trying to find Tercero.

Federal authorities believe Tercero may try to leave Arizona and possibly is headed to New Mexico.

Tercero was serving a 117-month sentence for various drug offenses.

Ronchetti enters Republican race for governor of New Mexico—Associated Press

Former Albuquerque television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti on Wednesday announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for governor of New Mexico.

Ronchetti said in a statement posted on a campaign website  that as governor he would focus on small businesses, education, crime and the border.

"Most importantly, I'll be a governor that does more than talk. I'll listen and find solutions that actually work," Ronchetti said.

In joining a crowded Republican primary field targeting Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Ronchetti is making his second run for statewide office.

Ronchetti was defeated in New Mexico's 2020 race for an open U.S. Senate seat by the Democratic nominee, then-Rep. Rep. Ben Ray Luján.

Ronchetti stepped down from his KRQE-TV job last week. He also stepped away from the station to run in 2020.

The seven other announced candidates for the GOP nomination for governor include state Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences, Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block and Greg Zanetti, a retired U.S. Army National Guard brigadier general from Albuquerque.

L:ujan Grisham is seeking a second four-year term.

New Mexico energizes first leg of major transmission line—Associated Press

It's been years in the making, and now officials say the first leg of a major renewable energy transmission line in New Mexico has been energized.

The New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority made the announcement Tuesday, saying the Western Spirit project is expected to be in operation by the end of the year.

The transmission line will carry wind-generated power to the grid in New Mexico and other western markets.

The project involved a novel public-private partnership between the transmission authority and Pattern Energy, which is developing a collection of wind farms in the state. New Mexico's largest electric utility, Public Service Co. of New Mexico, will acquire and operate the transmission line when it's complete.

State officials said the transmission line will be important as New Mexico aims to eliminate carbon emissions within the utility sector over the next two decades.

RETA Board Chairman Robert Busch said in a statement that the successful development of the transmission line and the state's energy policies are spurring interest from renewable energy and transmission developers. He added that the line enables new investment of over $1.5 billion in renewable generation and transmission in the state.

Despite New Mexico's potential for developing more wind and solar resources, a study commissioned by RETA last year identified a need for grid modernization and construction of 900 to 1,300 miles (1,448 to 2,092 kilometers) of new high voltage transmission lines.More workers sue US nuclear lab over vaccine mandate - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Another group of workers is suing Los Alamos National Laboratory over its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, arguing that the requirement discriminates against employees who sought religious or medical exemptions. 

The complaint was filed Friday in federal court by the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based law firm, on behalf of eight workers. Under the lab's policy, those with religious exemptions have to use vacation time or go without pay until they are allowed to return to work, and it's up to lab management to determine when it's safe for them to return.

"This is discrimination, pure and simple," special counsel Tyler Brooks said Tuesday in a statement. "Los Alamos claims to have offered exemptions for those who have sincere religious reasons for not taking a mandatory COVID vaccine, but their one-size-fits-all so-called 'accommodation' is flagrantly illegal. Accommodation by termination has never been a lawful option."

The lab said Tuesday in a statement that its most important asset is its workforce and that vaccination is the best tool it has to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the lab, where nearly 99% of workers are vaccinated. However, the lab did not address questions about what protections it might offer its workforce given that state health officials repeatedly have warned that vaccinated people can still become infected and spread the virus.

The  latest data from the state Health Department shows 27% of cases reported over the last four weeks have been among vaccinated people. Health officials have said they expect this number to increase as immunity wanes.

An effort by more than 100 engineers, technicians and other workers who sought to put the vaccine mandate on hold was rejected by a state district judge earlier this month, clearing the way for the lab to begin firing workers. Lab Director Thomas Mason told employees during a recent meeting that 185 workers had left over the mandate. About two dozen were granted medical exemptions, and more than 150 were granted religious exemptions. 

The lab employs nearly 14,000 people. 

The lawsuit argued that the lab refuses to detail its criteria for determining when COVID-19 levels are low enough for employees on leave without pay to return to work. 

"Defendants' approach is designed to maximize the uncertainty and anxiety of those employees ready and willing to return to their jobs in an effort to force compliance with their mandate despite recognizing that plaintiffs and others have a bona fide religious exemption to taking the vaccines," the complaint reads. 

Lawyers for the workers said their clients stand to lose professional standing as well as security clearances as a result of the mandate. 

The birthplace of the atomic bomb, Los Alamos is one of the nation's premier nuclear weapons facilities. It's under pressure to begin producing key components for the nation's nuclear arsenal and it conducts research on a wide range of topics from public health to energy infrastructure.

The law firm had asked Mason to revisit the vaccine policy but he declined, stating that the policy complied with state and federal laws.

Brooks noted that in Tennessee, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against Oak Ridge National Laboratory's vaccine mandate based on similar claims.

Aside from civil rights and constitutional violations, the lawsuit argued that the lab has refused requests for medical accommodations for those workers who have fully recovered from COVID-19 and have natural immunity.

New Mexico energizes first leg of major transmission line - Associated Press

It's been years in the making, and now officials say the first leg of a major renewable energy transmission line in New Mexico has been energized. 

The New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority made the announcement Tuesday, saying the Western Spirit project is expected to be in operation by the end of the year. 

The transmission line will carry wind-generated power to the grid in New Mexico and other western markets. 

The project involved a novel public-private partnership between the transmission authority and Pattern Energy, which is developing a collection of wind farms in the state. New Mexico's largest electric utility, Public Service Co. of New Mexico, will acquire and operate the transmission line when it's complete.

State officials said the transmission line will be important as New Mexico aims to eliminate carbon emissions within the utility sector over the next two decades.

RETA Board Chairman Robert Busch said in a statement that the successful development of the transmission line and the state's energy policies are spurring interest from renewable energy and transmission developers. He added that the line enables new investment of over $1.5 billion in renewable generation and transmission in the state.

Despite New Mexico's potential for developing more wind and solar resources, a study commissioned by RETA last year identified a need for grid modernization and construction of 900 to 1,300 miles of new high voltage transmission lines.

Bernalillo County inmate accused of fatally beating cellmate - Associated Press

A 25-year-old inmate in the main jail for metro Albuquerque is accused of killing another inmate who was his cellmate, officials said Tuesday.

Telea Lui was rebooked at the Metropolitan Detention Center on an open count of murder in the beating death of Leon Casiquito, 41, during a fight Monday, the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office said in a statement.

It didn't provide an alleged motive for the killing but said the two inmates were the only people in the cell when Casiquito were killed and that all other inmates were in their cells because of a lockdown.

Lui was originally booked into the jail on charges of aggravated battery of a household member with a deadly weapon and false imprisonment, the office said.

An attorney for the state public defender's office was representing Lui in his original case, and a spokeswoman for that office did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on the allegations against Lui in the homicide case.

US gun violence memorial to include Albuquerque families - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A bow tie from homecoming, a tiny basketball and a toy car and plane. 

It wasn't hard for Angel Alire to decide what would be the perfect objects to memorialize her son. He was a starting point guard for his high school basketball team, he poured his heart and much of his money into his sports car and he was close to earning his pilot's license.

Devon Trey Heyborne, 22, was killed on a Friday evening in April after opening his apartment door and being hit with gunfire. He is among the nearly 100 people killed in Albuquerque so far this year, marking yet another grim record for the city as it deals with a crime wave that has spanned several years. 

Alire is among the Albuquerque mothers and other family members who will be adding to what organizers hope one day will become a permanent memorial in the nation's capital. It's difficult to talk about, but the 46-year-old mother of three said she wants to be a voice for her youngest son and for change within the criminal justice system.

"I just want to get the word out there so something can happen, so other families will never have to feel this way," she said. "But even since he passed, look at how many more there have been."

The Gun Violence Memorial Project features four houses built of 700 glass bricks to represent the average number of people lost to homicides, suicides and accidental shootings each week in the United States. Each glass brick displays a person's name. Inside, the items tell the story behind that name. 

Launched in 2019 in Chicago, the gun violence memorial was inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt that debuted in the 1980s. The gun violence memorial currently is on display at a museum in Washington, D.C., as part of an exhibition that will run through September 2022.

Organizers call it "an active and living memorial," as items from around the country are continuously collected and added to the glass houses.

Volunteers with the project will be stopping in New Mexico's largest city Nov. 5-7 to collect items from families who have lost loved ones. Other collection events are planned this month in Massachusetts and New York. 

In Albuquerque, the number of shootings in which people were injured has increased by nearly 16% when compared to the same period last year. Law enforcement has recorded about 250 shootings so far this year, including more than three dozen accidental shootings. Most of the victims have been men between the ages of 20 and 30.

The mayor signed an executive order last week creating a task force to focus on gun violence. He and other officials call it a public health crisis.

"Gun violence is the main factor driving up crime in our city," Police Chief Harold Medina said last week. "This task force is going to help us better understand the underlying causes so that law enforcement can stop acting as a band aid, and we can really address the challenges people are facing."

Alire, the police chief and others have been pointing to problems within the criminal justice system — namely a revolving door and lax consequences for repeat offenders. 

In the case of Alire's son, the man charged in his death was supposed to be on house arrest for unrelated charges and monitored via GPS. She said she learned that monitoring was done only Monday through Friday during business hours. 

Hardworking and handsome is how Alire described her son, saying he would never miss a chance to visit his grandparents and help them with chores and grocery shopping. Alire said her son also would call her "about 20 times a day," asking for advice on everything from cooking pot roast to cleaning methods.

Her mobile phone is filled with photos and videos of Devon.

"I feel let down by our system and by our state," Alire said. "Systems that are supposed to protect us aren't working."

She has a hard time sleeping now, and it was one of her late-night online browsing sessions where she learned about the memorial project. Seeing all those glass bricks made an impact. 

"I just thought it was such an amazing visual for people to see the amount of lives taken every week from gun violence," she said. "I felt like there's been so much of that going on in New Mexico that I wanted to bring it here and be able to start the healing process among all of us who have lost someone."

Navajo Nation reports 32 more COVID-19 cases, 1 more death - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported 32 more COVID-19 cases and one additional death.

It marked only the ninth time in the past 27 days that the tribe has reported a coronavirus-related death.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 36,255 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The known death toll now is at 1,475.

Based on cases from Oct. 8-21, the Navajo Department of Health issued an advisory notice for 48 communities due to uncontrolled spread of COVID-19.

Tribal officials still are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel.

All Navajo Nation executive branch employees had to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of September or submit to regular testing.

The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Potential legal woes mount after 'Rust' shooting tragedy - By Stefanie Dazio, Lindsey Bahr And Anthony Mccartney Associated Press

Alec Baldwin the actor, who pulled the trigger on a prop gun while filming "Rust" in New Mexico and unwittingly killed a cinematographer and injured a director, likely won't be held criminally or civilly liable for the tragedy.

But Alec Baldwin the producer might be, along with several others in leadership positions for the Western.

Experts predict a tremendous legal fallout from the tragedy, definitely in civil lawsuits and potentially in criminal charges. In addition to Baldwin, a call sheet for the day of the shooting obtained by The Associated Press lists five producers, four executive producers, a line producer and a co-producer. They, as well as assistant director Dave Halls and armorer Hannah Gutierrez, could all face some sort of liability even if they weren't on location Thursday. 

The payouts — which could be covered in part by insurance held by the production company, Rust Movie Productions — would likely be in the "millions and millions" of dollars.

"There was clearly negligence on the set," said Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and a gun policy expert. "The producers had a duty to preserve the safety of the crew. There were obvious hazards on the set."

Santa Fe-based District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies told the AP on Tuesday that the investigation remains in the preliminary phase and her office was far from making any decisions about whether any charges would be filed. She added that those involved in the production were cooperating with law enforcement. 

There are "a lot of people involved and a lot of moving parts," the first-term elected prosecutor said of the circumstances surrounding the shooting death on the set of "Rust."

Authorities said Friday that Halls, the assistant director, had handed the weapon to Baldwin and announced  "cold gun," indicating it was safe to use. But it was loaded with live rounds. Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot, and director Joel Souza, who was standing behind her, was wounded.

Baldwin, who is known for his roles in "30 Rock" and "The Hunt for Red October" and his impression of former President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live," has described the killing as a "tragic accident." 

The production of "Rust" has been beset by disputes from the start in early October and included seven crew members walking off the set just hours before the shooting.  The Los Angeles Times, citing two crew members it did not name, reported that five days before the shooting, Baldwin's stunt double accidentally fired two live rounds after being told the gun didn't have any ammunition.

Alarmed by the misfires, a crew member told a unit production manager in a text message, "We've now had 3 accidental discharges. This is super unsafe," according to a copy of the message reviewed by the newspaper. 

Winkler called the previous misfires — and an apparent lack of any action taken after them — "a recipe for a very significant liability in damages." 

"You can't have a dangerous situation, know about it and then do nothing," he said.

Rust Movie Productions, the production company, says it is cooperating with Santa Fe authorities in their investigation. 

"Though we were not made aware of any official complaints concerning weapon or prop safety on set, we will be conducting an internal review of our procedures while production is shut down," Rust Movie Productions said in a statement to The Los Angeles Times.

Although New Mexico law defines involuntary manslaughter  in part as a lawful act that resulted in death from "an unlawful manner or without due caution and circumspection," defense attorney Nina Marino said she doubts any criminal case would be filed.

"If a local agency in New Mexico was going to go forward with criminal charges, that would have a real chilling effect on further filming taking place in New Mexico, and I think New Mexico appreciates the business," said Marino, who specializes in white collar cases as a co-founder of the Kaplan Marino law firm. 

Any film requires insurance coverage and any policy for a Western would hit upon the use of horses, other animals and firearms. The call sheet for Thursday alone mentions multiple guns, several horses and a daily snake wrangler. 

An insurer would likely cover any accidental events, but the company might not pay for negligence claims on a movie set, according to Julie Shapiro, law professor and director of Loyola Law School's Entertainment and Media Law Institute.

The insurance company will do its own investigation, Shapiro said, to determine if negligence occurred. The exact wording of the policy will determine what the company would pay.

While Baldwin, the other producers, the assistant director and the armorer might be named as parties in a civil lawsuit, not all may be found to be liable — particularly if they played no role in the safety aspects of the production or only held a vanity credit. The plaintiffs would likely go after the production company's deeper pockets. 

"How much? To what extent will insurance cover it? This is a loss of life — there is no dollar amount you can place," Shapiro said.

On-set fatalities have led to safety reforms in the past. But Jeff Harris — founding partner at Harris Lowry Manton LLP and the lead attorney in two high-profile trials involving accidental deaths on television and film sets, including stuntman John Bernecker on "The Walking Dead" and camera assistant Sarah Jones on "Midnight Rider" — said incidents like these are rare if the cast and crew follow regulations that are standard for the use of firearms in the film industry. 

"They're not complicated," Harris said. "They've been around for years. And it struck me — you don't have this happen if basic safety policies are being followed. The end."

Wildlife agencies to cancel Trump endangered species rules - By Matthew Brown Associated Press

President Joe Biden's administration announced Tuesday plans to cancel two environmental rollbacks under former President Donald Trump that limited habitat protections for imperiled plants and wildlife.

The proposal to drop the two Trump-era rules by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service is part of a broad effort by the Biden administration to undo regulations that Democrats and wildlife advocates say favored industry over the environment.

The designation of lands and waters as critical for the survival of vulnerable species can limit mining, oil drilling and other development. That's made the designations a flashpoint for conflict between environmental and business interests.

Industry groups and Republicans in Congress have long viewed the Endangered Species Act as an impediment to economic development. Under Trump, they successfully lobbied to weaken the law's regulations with changes that gave added weight to economic development and other interests.

The Trump administration changes had backing from an array of industry groups that said economic impacts had not been given enough consideration in past U.S. government wildlife decisions. Those groups ranged from livestock and ranching organizations to trade associations representing oil, gas and mining interests.

Biden administration officials acknowledged in documents published to the federal register that in canceling Trump's rules, they were adopting views that federal wildlife agencies rejected just months ago.

But the Biden administration officials said a reevaluation of the Trump policies showed them to be "problematic" because they limited the government's ability to advance conservation by protecting areas where plants and animals are found.

Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Shannon Estenoz said the proposal would bring the endangered species law "into alignment with its original intent and purpose — protecting and recovering America's biological heritage for future generations."

Republicans lawmakers pushed back. Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, the ranking GOP member of the House Natural Resources Committee, called Tuesday's move a "tone deaf" reversal of needed reforms to the endangered species law. 

Westerman and other Republicans said they were introducing legislation to make the Trump rules permanent. That stands little chance of passing while Democrats remain in control of the House and Senate. 

The rule changes under Trump were finalized during his last weeks in office, meaning they've had little time to make a significant impact. No new critical habitat designations have been affected by the rules since they went into effect in January, Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Brian Hires said.

One allows the government to deny habitat protections for endangered animals and plants in areas that could see greater economic benefits from development. Democratic lawmakers and wildlife advocates complained that would potentially open lands to more drilling and other activities.

The other rule provided a definition of "habitat" that critics charged would exclude locations species might need to use in the future as climate change upends ecosystems.

The two rules came in response to a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving a highly endangered Southern frog — the dusky gopher frog. 

In that case, a unanimous court faulted the government over how it designated "critical habitat" for the 3 ½-inch-long (8.9-centimetre-long) frogs that survive in just a few ponds in Mississippi. 

The issue arose after a timber company, Weyerhaeuser, sued when land it owned in Louisiana was designated as critical in case the frogs returned there in the future.

Trump officials described the changes as giving more deference to local governments when they want to build things like schools and hospitals.

But the rules allowed potential exemptions from habitat protections for a much broader array of developments, including at the request of private companies that lease federal lands or have permits to use them. Government-issued leases and permits can allow energy development, grazing, recreation, logging and other commercial uses of public lands.

Environmentalists who have urged Biden to reverse Trump's conservation policies said dropping the habitat rules marks a major step toward that goal.

"You really can't save endangered species without protecting the places they live or need to live," said Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Still pending, he said, are expected changes to a Trump-era a rule that reduced protections for wildlife categorized as threatened with extinction, a less urgent protection status than endangered. 

Animals potentially affected by the changes include the struggling lesser prairie chicken, a grasslands bird found in five states in the south-central U.S., and the rare dunes sagebrush lizard that lives among the oil fields of western Texas and eastern New Mexico, wildlife advocates said.