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Polar Bears Declared Endangered; Harm to Economy 'Limited'

May 19, 2008
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Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced last Wednesday that he was accepting the recommendation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a move he said would protect the bears "while limiting the unintended harm to the society and economy of the United States."

According to Kempthorne, the listing was based on the best available science, which shows that loss of sea ice threatens and will likely continue to threaten polar bear habitat. The loss of habitat puts polar bears at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future, the standard established by the ESA for designating a threatened species.

"While the legal standards under the ESA compel me to list the polar bear as threatened, I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting," Kempthorne said. "Any real solution requires action by all major economies for it to be effective. That is why I am taking administrative and regulatory action to make certain the ESA isn't abused to make global warming policies."

A new, FWS-proposed rule, effective immediately, states that if an activity is permissible under the stricter standards of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is also permissible under the ESA with respect to the polar bear. "This rule will ensure the protection of the bear while allowing us to continue to develop our natural resources in the arctic region in an environmentally sound way," Kempthorne said. FWS Director Dale Hall will also issue guidance to his staff "that the best scientific data available today cannot make a causal connection between harm to listed species or their habitats and greenhouse gas emissions from a specific facility, or resource development project or government action," Kempthorne said.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) will continue to monitor polar bear populations and trends, study polar bear feeding ecology, work cooperatively with the Alaska Nanuuq Commission and the North Slope Borough for co-management of the polar bears in Alaska. The DOI will also provide technical assistance to the participants of the 1988 North Slope Borough Inuvialuit Game Council Agreement for the conservation of polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea region and monitor the effects of oil and gas operations in the Beaufort Sea region, Kempthorne said.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said that when Kempthorne called her to inform her of the decision, he assured her "that oil and gas developments are not to blame." While her state is "disappointed" with the decision, it stands ready to help ensure that polar bear populations remain viable, Palin said. She said she "remains concerned that federal actions do not threaten the viable, productive and environmentally responsible oil and gas industry along Alaska's North Slope."

Canada has not listed polar bears as threatened even though more than two-thirds of the world's population of the species are found in Canadian territory, Kempthorne said.

Kempthorne said he went to Canada earlier this month "and explored this issue. The Canadian law is different from U.S. law with respect to endangered species, both in its criteria for listing and administrative process for making listing determinations."

While in Canada Kempthorne signed a Memorandum of Understanding with his Canadian counterpart, Minister of Environment John Baird, for the conservation and management of polar bear populations shared by the U.S. and Canada.

Environmental groups petitioned to have polar bears listed as an endangered species under the ESA in 2005. In early 2007 the DOI proposed a rule, published in the Federal Register, to list the polar bear as a "threatened" species, and public hearings followed in Alaska and Washington, DC. At DOI's request, the U.S. Geological Survey completed a report on polar bear habitat in the United States, which included data on arctic climate and sea ice trends. Following additional public hearings on the report, DOI announced on Jan. 7 that final listing would occur within 30 days.

At the end of April a federal judge ruled that the Bush administration had until May 15 to decide whether polar bears should be listed under ESA (see NGI, May 5). U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of the Northern District of California issued the order in Case No. C 08-1339 (Center for Biological Diversity, et al., v. Dirk Kempthorne, U.S. Secretary of the Interior; and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Noting that "timeliness is essential," the order was issued without oral argument. The lawsuit was filed after the Bush administration missed several deadlines this year to make a decision about the possible ESA listing (see NGI, March 17). DOI had requested a delay until June 30, which Wilken rejected.

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