After months of rule-making, the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service has ended up just about where it started on redefining what "harming" an endangered species means. In a final rule published last week, the service said "significant modification or degradation" of a species' habitat constitutes harm if it "kills or injures wildlife" by upsetting breeding, feeding or sheltering patterns.

The decision is a victory for environmental groups--in particular the Fund for Animals and the Environmental Defense Fund--which fought to block a proposed regulation that defined "harm" as killing or injuring an endangered species, but did not mention changing its habitat. Lewis Regenstein of the Fund for Animals said of the final version: "They apparently decided to see things our way and do the right thing."

Defining this word in one section of the Endangered Species Act has taken nearly eight years and created much confusion. The definition does not involve the section of the law barring federal agencies from disrupting an endangered species' habitat (the section that blocked construction of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Tellico Dam).

The whole act is now being reviewed by the agency because the law expires next year. Public comments solicited by Interior have identified about 50 issues that should be reconsidered, according to an agency spokesman. "They're all technical, but important issues," he said.