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Sarah and the Polar Bear

Christopher Brauchli

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. - George Orwell, Animal Farm

Now that we've all gotten over our giddiness at the excitement of a former almost-beauty queen, mayor and short-term governor as John McCain's running mate we should put to rest any thought that this was nothing more than a spur of the moment decision by John McCain. He only selected Sarah Palin after careful consideration of all the possible candidates for the post. There are lots of things in her background that render her a highly qualified candidate. One that has not been extensively commented upon is her finding common cause with Canada in a fight with the United States.

In what might be perceived a disloyal act coming from a Republican, Sarah took Canada's side with respect to the status of the polar bear as an endangered species. Neither Sarah nor Canada wants the animal's continued existence to interfere with life as we have grown accustomed to it. A Canadian scientific panel released an April review of the polar bear's status that said the bear population was a matter of "special concern" but not a population "endangered or threatened with extinction." This finding directly contradicted last year's U.S. Geological Survey prediction that "two thirds of the world's polar bears could be gone by mid-century if predictions of melting sea ice in the Arctic hold true." It also put Canada in direct conflict with the Bush administration's decision in May 2008 to add the polar bear to the endangered species list. It was that decision that was promptly attacked by Sarah Palin. Within days after the ruling was announced, Alaska began a lawsuit demanding that the decision be reversed claiming that the climate models predicting the loss of sea ice were unreliable, a position that is reinforced by Sarah's belief that global warming, if it exists at all, has nothing to do with human activity.

Explaining the reasons she opposed listing the polar bears as an endangered species, Sarah said that state wildlife officials had "found no reason to list the bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act" even though three marine mammal biologists in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game agreed with the studies the Federal government relied on in declaring the polar bear endangered. In addition to opposing the rule because of her flimsy understanding of science, Sensible Sarah pointed out that the rule would make drilling for oil and gas more difficult.

Sarah's approach put herself and her state squarely at odds with the Bush administration that had promulgated the new rule in May. Dirk Kempthorne, the U.S. Interior Secretary, said his decision to add the polar bear to the endangered species list was based on three findings: "First, sea ice is vital to polar bear survival; second, the polar bear's habitat has dramatically melted; third, sea ice is likely to further recede in the future." Those comments were remarkably close to the beliefs expressed by scientists, an alignment almost unheard of in the Bush administration. It wouldn't last.


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When the Bush administration discovered that it had come out on the side of science in connection with a sensitive subject, it quickly retreated thus lining itself up with Sarah. In August it was announced that a regulatory overhaul of the Endangered Species Act was proposed. Science would once again" be sent to the back of the bus. Instead of having independent scientific reviews to determine whether protected species would "be imperiled by agency projects" federal agencies comprising non-scientists would begin making those determinations, a conclusion reminiscent of the EPA's decision to take issues away from scientists and place them in the hands of non-scientists. Dick Kempthorne, who so eloquently defended the May ruling, said the

new rules were simply an attempt to "provide clarity and certainty to the consultation process under the Endangered Species Act." Not everyone sees it that way.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall of West Virginia, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee said the rule gives "federal agencies an unacceptable degree of discretion to decide whether or not to comply with the Endangered Species Act." Bob Irvin who is senior vice president of conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife observes that most agencies do not have wildlife biologists on staff and, therefore, have no way to make qualified judgments on issues affecting wildlife. Dale Hall, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serve disagrees and offers reassurance that all will be right with the endangered species. He says individual agencies will have to take responsibility if their projects do harm a protected species. "This really says to the agencies, ‘This law belongs to all of us. You're responsible to defend it'" he explained. Those words are comforting. If the agencies err because of lack of scientific input they will be responsible for the consequences. The consequences will be extinction or reduction of the species. The agencies will almost certainly feel really bad about that.


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