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U.S. to list polar bears as threatened

But will listing lead to action?

May 14, 2008
Assciated Press

The U.S. In­t­ri­or De­part­ment de­clared the po­lar bear a threat­ened spe­cies Wednes­day be­cause of the loss of Arc­tic sea ice. But bec­ause the root cause is be­lieved to be the thorny po­li­ti­cal issue of glo­bal warm­ing, there are doubts as to whe­ther the listi­ng will lead to action to save the ani­mal.  

Department officials immediately cau­tioned the de­ci­sion should not be viewed as a path to ad­dress glob­al warm­ing.

Polar bear with cub (image credit: Scott Schliebe / USFWS)


In­te­ri­or Sec­re­tary Dirk Kempthorne cit­ed dra­at­ic de­clines in sea ice over the last three dec­ades and pro­jec­tions of con­tin­ued losses, mean­ing, he said, that the po­lar bear is a spe­cies likely to be in dan­ger of ex­tinc­tion in the near fu­ture. But Kempthorne said it would be “wholly in­ap­pro­priate to use the pro­tec­tion of the bar to re­duce green­house gas­es, or to broadly ad­dress cli­mate change.

The Endan­gered Spe­cies Act “is not the right tool to set U.S. cli­mate pol­i­cy,” said Kmpthorne, re­flect­ing a view re­cently ex­pressed by Pres­ident Bush.

The de­part­ment out­lned a set of ad­min­is­tra­tive ac­tions and lim­its to how it planned to pro­tect the bear with its new sta­tus so that it would not have wide-rang­ing ad­verse im­pact on eco­nom­ic ac­ti­vi­ties from build­ing pow­er plants to oil and gas ex­plora­t­ion.

“This list­ing will not stop gob­al cli­mate change or pre­vent any sea ice from melt­ing,” said Kempthorne. He said he had con­sulted with the White House on the de­ci­sion, but “at no time was there ev­er a sug­ges­tion that this was not my de­ci­sion.”

Kempthorne, at a news con­fer­ence, was ared with slides and charts show­ing the dra­mat­ic de­cline in sea ice over the last 30 years and pro­jec­tions that the melt­ing of ice — a key hab­i­tat for the bear — would con­tin­ue and may even quick­en.

He cit­ed con­clu­sions by de­part­ment sci­en­tists tat sea ice loss will likely re­sult in two-thirds of the po­lar bears dis­ap­pear­ing by mid-century. The bear popula­t­ion across the Arc­tic from Alas­ka to Green­land dou­bled from about 12,000 to 25,000 since 1960, but he not­ed that sci­en­tists now pre­dict a sig­nif­i­cant popula­t­ion de­cline. Stud­ies last year by the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey sug­gested 15,000 bears would be lost in com­ing dec­ades with those in the west­ern Hud­son Bay ar­ea of Alas­ka and Can­a­da un­der the great­est stress.

But when asked how the bear will be af­forded great­er pro­tec­tion, Dale all, di­rec­tor of the U.S. Fish and Wild­life Serv­ice, had dif­fi­cul­ty com­ing up with ex­am­ples.

Bet­ter man­age­ment of bear hab­i­tat on shore and mak­ing sure bears aren’t thrat­ened by peo­ple in­clud­ing hunters, more stud­ies on bear popula­t­ion trends and their feed­ing habits were among the ar­e­as men­tioned. “I don’t want to pre­judge rec­om­menda­t­ions for (bear) man­age­ment,” said Hall whose agen­cy ad­min­is­ters the Endan­gered Spe­cies Act.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists were al­ready map­ping out plans to file law­suits chal­lng­ing the re­stric­tive meas­ures out­lined by Kempthorne. “They’re try­ing to mke this a threat­ened list­ing in name only with no change in to­day’s im­pacts and that’s not go­ing to fly,” said Ja­mie Rap­pa­port Clark of De­fend­ers of Wild­life and a form­er U.S. Fish and Wild­life Serv­ice di­rec­tor.

Mem­bers of Con­gress al­so were skep­ti­cal.

The Bush ad­ministra­t­ion “is forc­ing the po­lar bear to sink or swim,” said Rep. Ed­ward Markey, D-Mass., chair­man of a House com­mit­tee on glob­al warm­ing.

Sen. John Ker­ry, D-Mass., clled it “a life­line for our last re­main­ing po­lar bears” but said the bear’s sur­viv­al won’t be as­sured with­out lim­its on oil de­vel­op­ment in the same Arc­tic wa­ters where the bears are found.

De­spite the new list­ing, the an­nunce­ment un­der­scores the need to ap­prove cli­mate leg­isla­t­ion that would lim­it the re­lease of green­house gas­es and avert the fu­ture ef­fects on cli­mate change, said Sen. Bar­ba­ra Box­er, D-Calif., chair­wom­an of the En­vi­ronment Com­mit­tee.

Sci­en­tists have blamed glob­al wrm­ing for the dis­ap­pear­ance of sea ice which is vi­tal for the bear’s sur­viv­al.

Sum­mer ice sur­round­ing the North Ple de­clined an av­er­age of 10 per­­cent per dec­ade since 1979, with a loss of about 28,000 square miles per year, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Snow and Ice Da­ta Cen­ter. Last year was the sharpest drop, as the amount of sea ice in Sep­tem­ber fell to 1.65 mil­lion square miles, or 23 per­­cent be­low the pre­vi­ous low in 2005.

Kempthorne pro­posed 15 mnths ago to in­ves­t­i­gate wheth­er the po­lar bear should be de­clared threat­ened un­der the Endan­gered Spe­cies Act. That trig­gered a year of stud­ies in­to the threats fac­ing the bear and its sur­viv­al prospects.

A de­ci­sion had been ex­pected early this year, but the In­te­ri­or De­part­ment sid it needed more time to work out many of the de­tails, prompt­ing crit­i­cism from mem­bers of Con­gress and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists filed a law­suit aimed at forc­ing a de­ci­sion and a fed­er­al court on April 29 set a May 15 dead­line for a de­ci­sion.

A spe­cies is de­clared “theat­ened” un­der the Endan­gered Spe­cies Act if it is found to be at risk of becom­ing endan­gered in the fore­see­a­ble fu­ture. If it does not make prog­ress to­ward reco­very, it can be de­clared “endan­gered” mean­ing it is at risk of ex­tinc­tion and needs even great­er pro­tec­tion.


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The Interior Department declared the polar bear a threatened species Wednesday because of the loss of Arctic sea ice