The Bush administration reluctantly declared the polar bear a threatened species yesterday, concluding that the loss of Arctic sea ice has put the future of the iconic species in peril. But the administration also took steps to ensure the decision will not require new efforts to tackle global warming or put new restrictions on oil and gas development in polar bear habitat.
The announcement ends a three-year legal dispute over whether the polar bear should be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because of the impact of global warming on its Arctic habitat. Three conservation groups first filed a petition requesting the decision in 2005.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service missed a January deadline to issue a decision and was under a court order to finalize its decision by Thursday.
"I wish the decision could be otherwise," U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne told reporters, bemoaning the "restraints of the inflexible law that guides me."
Kempthorne said the growing body of evidence that the polar bear is at risk from melting sea ice left him with little choice but to list the species. The Endangered Species Act requires that the decision is supported by the best available science. Although there are an estimated 22,000 polar bears spread across the Arctic, including some 4,700 within the United States, there are worrying signs that rising temperatures have put the species in jeopardy.
A key scientific study issued last fall by the U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, found that two-thirds of the world's polar bears, including all those within the United States, could disappear by 2050 due to increased sea ice melt caused by rising temperatures. Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt for prey.
The USGS research came amid startling evidence that the Arctic is melting faster than predicted, as ice loss last year reached levels not predicted to occur until mid-century. Some scientists now predict the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer as early as 2012.
The loss of habitat puts polar bears at risk of becoming endangered in the "foreseeable future," Kempthorne said, and thus meets the criteria for the species to be listed as threatened.
Listing the polar bear requires federal agencies ensure that any action they authorize, fund, or carry out will not jeopardize the polar bears' continued existence or adversely modify their critical habitat.
In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service must prepare a recovery plan for the polar bear, specifying measures necessary for its protection.
But the Interior chief immediately took steps to limit the impact of the listing and make sure it "isn't abused to make global warming policies." He stressed that decision will not open the door to restraints on activities that produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
"That would be a totally inappropriate use of the Endangered Species Act," Kempthorne said, adding that the law "was never intended to regulate global climate change."
While the legal standards under the Endangered Species Act "compel me to list the polar bear as threatened," he added, "I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting."
Kempthorne echoed the Bush administration's standard stance on climate change, saying it is a global problem that will require cooperative action from all major economies.
He touted efforts to further monitor U.S. polar bear populations and to work with Canada and other Arctic nations to protect the species.
Kempthorne also invoked a rarely used section of the law that allows the less restrictive Marine Mammal Protection Act, MMPA, to guide regulation of activities, including oil and gas development, in the polar bear's habitat.
The polar bear has been listed under the MMPA since 1972.
"The loss of sea ice, not oil and gas exploration or subsistence activity, is the primary threat to the polar bear," he said.
Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the 2005 petition, called the listing decision a "watershed event" but added that the legal battle is far from over.
"The administration's attempts to reduce protection to the polar bear from greenhouse gas emissions are illegal and won't hold up in court," Siegel said.
Kempthorne also told reporters that the decision was not delayed in order to allow new lease sales in the Chukchi Sea, home to some 2,000 polar bears.
The lease sales went ahead in February, despite widespread criticism from Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists who wanted Kempthorne to postpone the sales until the listing decision was finalized.
"If we had been able to make polar bear decision, it would have preceded the lease sale," Kempthorne said.
A coalition of Alaska native and conservation groups has filed suit to block the lease sales, arguing that the government failed to fully consider the environmental and economic impacts of oil and gas development on local communities.
© Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.