May 14, 2008

U.S. Declares Polar Bears Endangered Species

Officials said Wednesday that the Interior Department is accepting the recommendation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act because of the decline in Arctic sea ice from global warming.

The department made its decision after citing studies by its own scientists that the decline of Arctic sea ice off Alaska and Canada could result in two-thirds of the polar bears disappearing by mid-century. The decision comes a day before a court-imposed deadline on deciding whether the bear should be put under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne scheduled a news conference to announce the action.

Kempthorne proposed 15 months ago to investigate whether the polar bear should be declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but he stressed that the ESA was never intended to regulate global climate change.

"Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears.  But it should not open the door to use of the ESA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants, and other sources," said Kempthorne.

This is the first time that the Endangered Species Act has been used to protect a species threatened by the impacts of global warming. Businesses are concerned that such action could have far-reaching impact and could be used to regulate carbon dioxide.

But an official said that the decision includes provisions that specifically are aimed at protecting power plants and other energy-related entities.

Scientists say the Arctic sea ice serves as a primary habitat for the polar bear and is critical to its survival. Last year, Arctic sea ice fell to the lowest level ever recorded by satellite, 39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000.  The amount of sea ice loss in years 2002-2007 exceeded all previous record lows.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service drew upon biological information on the bear, careful consideration of whether the bear can adapt to new habitat conditions, over 30 years of actual sea ice observations, and dozens of studies and models on sea ice.

Based on these considerations, the ESA determined that the polar bear met the criteria for being listed as "threatened" as it was at risk of becoming "endangered".

Andrew Wetzler, director of the endangered species program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the science is "absolutely clear that polar bear needs protection under the Endangered Species Act."

Kempthorne said the department would continue to monitor polar bear populations and trends as well as study the species feeding ecology.