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CONTACT: Defenders of Wildlife
Cat Lazaroff, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-3270
Sec. Salazar Leaves Polar Bears Poorly Protected
Interior Department refuses chance to overturn damaging Bush-era rule
WASHINGTON - May 8 - Defenders of Wildlife has learned that the Department of the Interior plans to announce today that it will let slip a chance to ensure that threatened polar bears receive all the vital protections they need under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In March, Congress passed a bill giving the Interior Department the extraordinary authority to immediately overturn two Bush-era rules that undermined endangered species protections, including one that weakened requirements for scientific consultation under the ESA, and another that limited protections for the polar bear. The bill gave Interior Secretary Ken Salazar 60 days to withdraw the rules and immediately reinstate the more protective rules that were in place before the Bush administration changed them.
Secretary Salazar used that authority to overturn the damaging consultation regulations on May 4. However, he has failed to use the authority Congress gave him to restore protections to the threatened polar bear.
"We're very disappointed that Secretary Salazar decided not to cut through the red tape and restore protections for polar bears immediately," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The polar bear's Arctic sea ice habitat is melting away, the Arctic seals which polar bears hunt for food are becoming increasingly scarce, and the cause is clearly global warming. In spite of this, Secretary Salazar is leaving in place a rule that says activities that cause global warming and therefore harm polar bears will never be considered violations of the Endangered Species Act under any circumstances. That made no sense under the Bush administration and it certainly makes no sense for the Obama administration."
Defenders of Wildlife has challenged the polar bear rule in federal court to ensure that the polar bear, which was listed as "threatened" under the ESA on May 14, 2008, receives the protection necessary for its conservation, the standard required by the ESA. With today's decision leaving polar bears with only limited protection, Defenders will be forced to continue its litigation challenging the rule.
"It is categorically not true to say that the Marine Mammal Protection Act provides sufficient protections for the polar bear, and the Interior Department should know that. We will do everything we can to ensure that the Obama administration gives the polar bear the vital protections it needs to survive," said Clark. "The polar bear is running out of time."
Polar bears were listed as threatened under the ESA on May 14, 2008, a move that normally would have provided the species with protection from activities that harm the bears themselves or their habitat. However, the Bush administration also issued a rule under Section 4(d) of the ESA which in essence prevents the law from applying to a variety of activities that cause global warming, the very heart of the threat to the polar bear.
While the Bush administration acknowledged that the polar bear warranted listing under the ESA primarily due to the rapid melting of its Arctic sea ice habitat caused by global warming, the 4(d) rule put greenhouse gas polluters outside the reach of the act.
The 4(d) rule asserts that, with respect to activities within the polar bear's current range, the species is already adequately protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the new ESA threatened status will not add to that protection, even though the MMPA provides only limited protection for habitat. In an attempt to preclude application of the ESA to greenhouse gas polluters such as coal-fired power plants, the rule also directs that the incidental take prohibitions of the ESA do not apply to any activities outside the current range of the polar bear within the U.S.
The polar bear is the largest of the world's bear species and is distributed among nineteen Arctic subpopulations - two of which, the Chukchi and the Southern Beaufort Sea populations, are located within the United States.
Polar bears are threatened with extinction from global warming, which is melting the Arctic sea ice where polar bears hunt for ringed and bearded seals, their primary food source.
The U.S. Geological Survey has published a series of reports predicting that loss of summer sea ice-vital habitat for polar bears-could lead to the demise of two-thirds of the world's polar bears by mid-century, including all of Alaska's polar bears.