Washington (AFP) May 14, 2008
The US government Wednesday listed polar bears as a threatened species owing to a drastic reduction in Arctic sea ice, but stood by its permission for oil and gas drilling in their frozen habitat.
The announcement by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne amounted to the government's first use of the Endangered Species Act to list a species as menaced because of a loss of habitat caused by global warming.
"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 told a news conference.
"Any real solution requires action by all major economies for it to be effective," he said, echoing President George W. Bush's reasons for renouncing the Kyoto treaty on climate change.
The Interior Department said that under the ESA, a listing of "threatened" means that a species is at risk of becoming "endangered" within the foreseeable future. It is listed as endangered when it faces imminent extinction.
The polar bear now comes under federal protection, but officials were vague about what that would mean in practice, and were at pains to stress that it did not mean a halt to energy exploration in northern Alaska and offshore.
The Bush administration supports oil drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge in Alaska, adamant that industry regulations already exist to protect species such as polar bears, whales, seals and walruses.
Kempthorne did detail greater steps to monitor polar bear populations in Alaska and outlying islands in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, where the US government this year has sold new leases for energy exploration.
Hunting of polar bears is already restricted under US law after their numbers fell as low as 12,000 in the 1960s, and Kempthorne said ice melting posed the greatest danger now, not energy production or indigenous peoples.
The iconic bears' population has rebounded to an estimated 20,000-25,000, two-thirds of them in Canada, but Kempthorne said they were "likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future" without preventive action.
The interior secretary displayed images showing Arctic sea ice fell to its lowest level ever recorded by satellite, 39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000.
Kempthorne said he was acting on advice from the scientific community and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and denied coming under any pressure from the White House to stop the listing.
"Today's decision is a tremendous victory for one of the world's most iconic and charismatic animals," said Carter Roberts, president of the US arm of the World Wildlife Fund.
"The other big winner today is sound science, which has clearly trumped politics, providing polar bears a new lease on life," he said.
But WWF and other environmental groups also stressed that the US government, which has resisted all legal efforts to parlay the ESA into a law against climate change, had to address the underlying cause: greenhouse gas emissions.
"Federal protection represents only the tip of the iceberg if Americans want to save the polar bear," said Betsy Loyless, senior vice president of the National Audubon Society.
"Listing the bear as threatened is not going to save it if we continue to melt (ice) and drill its habitat," she said.
A Canadian scientific panel last month urged Canada's government to act to safeguard the polar bear, which it recommended designating as a species "of special concern" but not one imminently threatened with extinction.
Kempthorne said the "special concern" category did not exist in US law and he had no option, given the scientific advice, to list polar bears as threatened.
But Edward Markey, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives select committee on global warming, said that at the same time, the US government was allowing Arctic oil and gas drilling to continue "unchecked."
"Essentially, the administration is giving a gift to Big Oil, and short shrift to the polar bear," he said.
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Federal Polar Bear Research Critically Flawed
Hanover MD (SPX) May 13, 2008
Research done by the U.S. Department of the Interior to determine if global warming threatens the polar bear population is so flawed that it cannot be used to justify listing the polar bear as an endangered species, according to a study being published later this year in Interfaces, a journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS).
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