WASHINGTON - Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced this morning he'll keep in place a Bush administration rule that limits government scientists from looking at anything other than the habitat of polar bears as they develop plans to manage them as a threatened species.
Environmentalists had sought a change to the rule, which effectively limited government scientists from considering the effects of greenhouse gas emissions as they worked to address the bears' loss of habitat in Alaska. The rule was announced last May when former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne determined that under the Endangered Species Act, the bears are threatened. But at the time, Kempthorne warned that the Bush administration did not want polar bears to be used as a "back door" for setting climate change policy.
On Friday, the Interior Department reluctantly agreed, saying it is scientifically impossible to use the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse gases that are contributing to the warming of the earth -- and the resulting melting of bears' habitat in Alaska. The emissions from, for example, a cement plant in Georgia, can't be tied directly to the precipitous decline in polar ice, Salazar said.
Slowing global warming by capping greenhouse gas emissions will have to be addressed with comprehensive climate change legislation supported by the administration, said Tom Strickland, the assistant Interior secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.
"On a parallel track, this administration, in contrast to (the) previous administration, is actively engaged in trying to get a comprehensive climate change bill passed," Strickland said.
Salazar said he had reviewed the current rule, received the recommendations of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and decided that the best course of action for protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act is to "wisely implement the current rule, monitor its effectiveness, and evaluate our options for improving the recovery of the species."
"To see the polar bear's habitat melting and an iconic species threatened is an environmental tragedy of the modern age," Salazar said.
"This administration is fully committed to the protection and recovery of the polar bear.
Salazar did note that the White House budget released Thursday includes an increase of $7.4 million for polar bear conservation. Of that, $3.2 million will go to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The money includes a $1.5 million increase for the agencies that must be consulted before oil and gas projects go forward in polar bear territory. It also helps prepare for a Polar Bear Conservation Plan to guide U.S. and international work to conserve and improve the status of the species, Salazar said.