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Judge Affirms Polar Bear Protection Status

July 2, 2011

A District Court Judge has ruled that the US Fish and Wildlife Service acted correctly in listing polar bears as a threatened species, rebuffing a pair of opposing legal challenges to the creature’s classification on the endangered species list.

Environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, sued claiming that global warming and melting sea ice should afford the polar bear greater protection on the endangered list, while the state of Alaska and Safari Club International claimed that the mammal should not be protected, calling the decision to do so “arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of agency discretion,” according to documents obtained by Reuters Environment Correspondent Deborah Zabarenko after the trial.

In his 116 page ruling Friday, Judge Emmet Sullivan said that government scientists had acted properly given the available data and information, and that the plaintiffs had “failed to demonstrate that the agency’s listing determination rises to the level of irrationality.”

“According to some plaintiffs, mainstream climate science shows that the polar bear is already irretrievably headed toward extinction throughout its range. According to others, climate science is too uncertain to support any reliable predictions about the future of polar bears,” Sullivan wrote, according to the Associated Press (AP). “This Court is not empowered to choose among these competing views. That is particularly true where, as here, the agency is operating at the frontiers of science.”

Much of the controversy over the polar bear’s inclusion on the endangered species list stems from the fact that it is the first species to receive protection due to the threat of climate change, notes the AP. Thus, even though more than 25,000 bears can be found throughout the Arctic region, the wire service says that experts had to project how they would be impacted by global warming in the decades to come.

“Their conclusion,” according to the AP, was that “an estimated 15,000 bears would be lost as rising temperatures caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere melted the sea ice on which the bears depend.”

The US Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed 160,000 pages of documents, as well as comments from well over half a million “interested parties” over a period of three years, Sullivan wrote in his decision, according to Zabarenko.

John Burns, the attorney general of Alaska, told the AP, “While the state is disappointed the polar bear remains listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the state believes the court was correct in rejecting the environmental groups’ claim that the polar bear should be listed as endangered”¦ However, given the current health of the species the state continues to believe that it is inappropriate to list this species at this time.”

Representatives of the Center for Biological Diversity also had mixed reactions to the ruling. Attorney Brendan Cummings told the AP that it was “good news” that “the judge strongly rejected the state of Alaska and various industry groups’ arguments that global warming is too uncertain a threat for the bear to be protected at all,” but added that the species’ condition as a whole had deteriorated since 2008.

Likewise, in a statement, Kassie Siegel of the organization’s Climate Law Institute called the verdict “an important affirmation that the science demonstrating that global warming is pushing the polar bear toward extinction simply cannot be denied.”

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