Following a three-year legal battle to protect the polar bear from extinction due to global warming, three environmental groups won protection for the species with the announcement today that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is listing the polar bear as a federally “threatened” species.
The decision was issued in response to a 2005 scientific petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and was required by a court order in a lawsuit brought by the groups to end the administration's delay in issuing a final Endangered Species Act listing decision.
While the polar bear listing is one of the administration's clearest acknowledgments to date of the urgent threat posed by global warming, the administration is simultaneously attempting to reduce the protections the bear will receive under the Act. It claims in the listing decision that federal agencies need not consider the impact of global warming pollution on the polar bear; it has also proposed a separate regulation reducing the protections the polar bear would otherwise receive.
“This decision is a watershed event because it has forced the Bush administration to acknowledge global warming's brutal impacts,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the 2005 petition. “It’s not too late to save the polar bear, and we'll keep fighting to ensure that the polar bear gets the help it needs through the full protections of the Endangered Species Act. The administration's attempts to reduce protection to the polar bear from greenhouse gas emissions are illegal and won't hold up in court.”
Polar bears live only in the Arctic and are totally dependent on the sea ice for all their essential needs. Global warming is an overwhelming threat to the polar bear, which is already suffering starvation, drowning, and population declines as the sea ice melts away.
"The polar bear is already on thin ice. Protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act is a major step forward, but the Bush administration has proposed using loopholes in the law to allow the greatest threat to the polar bear — global warming pollution — to continue unabated," said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Endangered Species Project at NRDC. “If the key threats to the polar bear are not addressed soon, zoos will be the only place our grandchildren will be able to see a polar bear.”
“The administration's inclusion of this language exempts the impact of global warming on the polar bear and would gut any protections the ruling would have provided,” said Melanie Duchin, global warming campaigner for Greenpeace USA in Alaska. “Global warming threatens polar bears with extinction, so to exempt global warming pollution from the formula for protecting the species violates the spirit and intent of the ESA.”
Each step in the listing process has required legal action to enforce the Endangered Species Act's deadlines for protecting species. The three groups first sued the Bush administration in December 2005 because the government had ignored their petition to protect the polar bear. As a result of that lawsuit, in February 2006 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that protection of polar bears "may be warranted," and commenced a full status review of the species. A settlement agreement in the case committed the Service to make the second of three required findings by December 27, 2006, at which time the administration announced the proposal to list the species as “threatened.”
By law, the administration was required to make the May 15, 2008 final listing decision within one year of the proposal, or by January 9, 2008. When the administration failed to comply with that deadline, the groups filed suit on March 10, 2008 to end the delay. On April 28, the District Court issued an order requiring the administration to issue a decision by May 15.
Scientists predicted and have now documented the grim impacts to polar bears as the Arctic warms rapidly. Shrinking sea ice drastically restricts polar bears' ability to hunt their main prey, ice seals. In the spring of 2006, scientists located the bodies of several bears that had starved to death. Reduced food availability due to global warming has also caused polar bears to resort to cannibalism off the north coast of Alaska and Canada. In September, the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that, based on polar bear distribution and current global warming projections, two-thirds of the world's polar bear population would likely be extinct by 2050, including all polar bears within the United States.
The Arctic melt is also outpacing predictions. September 2007 shattered all previous records for sea-ice loss when the Arctic ice cap shrank to a record 1 million square miles — equivalent to an area six times the size of California — below the average summer sea-ice extent of the past several decades, reaching levels not predicted to occur until mid-century. Scientists already predict that this year's sea-ice minimum could shatter the record set in 2007, and several leading scientists have now stated that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in the summer by 2012.
Listing the polar bear guarantees that federal agencies will be obligated to ensure that any action they authorize, fund, or carry out will not jeopardize polar bears' continued existence or adversely modify their critical habitat, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be required to prepare a recovery plan for the polar bear, specifying measures necessary for its protection.
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