January 9, 2008

Groups Plan Lawsuit to Protect Polar Bears

Three conservation groups began legal action today to force the Bush administration to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace submitted a formal notice to federal agencies and officials who will make the decision in Washington, D.C., of their intent to sue the administration for missing the deadline to decide whether polar bears will be listed due to global warming.

A formal notice must be sent before a lawsuit may be filed in federal court. The deadline for Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's decision on listing is today.

Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity said missing the deadline was illegal and unjustified.

"Endangered Species Act listing decisions must be based only on science, and the scientists have finished their work on the polar bear listing," she said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall announced Monday that the deadline for a decision would not be met in part because of the complexity of the issue.

The agency has never declared a species threatened or endangered because of climate change and the research effort has been taxing and challenging, he said.

Hall said the agency hoped to have a recommendation within weeks so that Kempthorne could announce a decision on polar bear listing within a month.

"Endangered" means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The "threatened" listing proposed for polar bears is one step below, a category that means a species is likely to become endangered.

Polar bears are considered marine mammals because they spend most of their lives on sea ice. They use ice to hunt their main prey, ringed seals.

Summer 2007 set a record low for sea ice in the Arctic with just 1.65 million square miles, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, nearly 40 percent less ice than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000.

Almost three years have passed since the polar bear listing petition was submitted in February 2005. Siegel was the lead author.

The groups first sued the Bush administration in December 2005 when the Fish and Wildlife Service missed its first deadline to respond.

The agency responded to the lawsuit in February 2006 and determined that protection of polar bears "may be warranted." That triggered a full status review of the species and the proposal on Jan. 9, 2007, to list the species as threatened. Kempthorne a year ago cited thinning sea ice as a major problem for the animals and expressed concern that polar bear habitat may be melting.

The conservation groups said delays in listing other species have been used to rewrite conclusions of federal scientists.

"The science confirms that the polar bear is endangered, but the Bush administration continues to downplay the danger of global warming and delay any action to address the issue," said Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace USA.