THREATENED: The Interior Department moved May 14 (one day ahead of its deadline) to designate the polar bear as a "threatened species" under the Endangered Species Act. Image: Courtesy of Steve Amstrup, U.S.G.S.
The U.S. Department of the Interior Wednesday listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 based on evidence that the animal's sea ice habitat is shrinking and is likely to continue to do so over the next several decades. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, however, made clear several times during a press conference announcing the department's decision that, despite his acknowledgement that the polar bear's sea ice habitat is melting due to global warming, the ESA will not be used as a tool for trying to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for creating climate change.
The decision was based on evidence that sea ice is vital for polar bear survival, that this sea ice habitat has been reduced, and that this process is likely to continue; if something is not done to change this situation, the polar bear will be extinct within 45 years, Kempthorne said. He pointed to computer models he and his colleagues studied that project a 30 percent decline in sea ice by 2050.
Listing the polar bear as "threatened" means the animal is at risk of becoming an "endangered" species--in danger of extinction--in the foreseeable future if its habitat continues to be destroyed or adversely changed. The listing does not protect the polar bear from being hunted by natives for food and other resources.
Cato Institute environmental studies senior fellow Patrick Michaels disputes the department's science, however. In a statement issued Wednesday, he noted: "This marks the first instance of a species being listed based upon a computer model of future climate from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There has been no net warming in the last decade, and scientists recently discovered that it is likely there will be little if any for the next decade." He concludes that the department's listing is based on "obsolete science," making this more of a political than a scientific decision.
Kempthorne noted that decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species was particularly difficult. "The polar bear poses a unique conservation challenge," he said. "With most [species], we can identify a localized threat, but the threat to the polar bear comes from global influences on sea ice."
Interior's decision is intended to afford the polar bear protections without interfering with industry located in the Arctic. "I've accepted that the loss of sea ice, not subsistence [hunting of the animal] or the oil and gas industries, is the reason for the threat to the polar bears," which are already protected by the more stringent Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, Kempthorne said. Still, he acknowledged, "this decision will not stop global climate change or prevent sea ice from melting."
Although the polar bear's listing does recognize the impact of changing global conditions, the department is quick to point out that it does not assign blame for these conditions on anyone in particular. The ESA "can't make connections between greenhouse gas emissions and the polar bear's status as an endangered species," Dale Hall, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said at the press conference.
U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland, Calif., on April 29 ordered the Bush administration to stop dragging its feet on the fate of polar bears and decide by May 15 whether declining sea ice in the Arctic threatens their existence. That ruling was a small victory for a coalition of environmentalists—the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace International and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)--which sued to force the Interior Department to decide whether to protect these Arctic predators under the ESA, which it had committed to do by January 9.