White House to Study Protecting Polar Bears

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2006

The Bush administration has agreed to study whether polar bears should be added to the nation's endangered species list because global warming is shrinking their habitat. They would be the first mammals to gain protected status as a result of climate change.

The announcement, which came as 85 evangelical leaders called on the United States to impose mandatory limits on greenhouse gases linked to climate change, highlights the extent to which policymakers are grappling with how to respond to Earth's rapid warming.

Kert Davies, a climate expert at the advocacy group Greenpeace, said the Fish and Wildlife Service's announcement "shows the magnitude of the global-warming crisis, and the importance for the United States to take immediate action."

Greenpeace -- along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity -- sued the federal government in December to place the global polar bear population, which numbers 20,000 to 25,000, on the endangered list. The U.S. government adds only a handful of species to the list each year. Fish and Wildlife said the environmentalists had presented "substantial scientific and commercial information indicating that listing the polar bear may be warranted."

As global temperatures have risen, Arctic ice -- which polar bears depend on to hunt for food -- has shrunk. In September, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that summer sea ice had declined to a record minimum, and studies suggest the Arctic may be ice-free in summer by the end of the century. Some polar bears in Alaska and Canada have become noticeably thinner and less able to reproduce in recent years; the population in Canada's Western Hudson Bay has dropped 15 percent over the past decade.

Rosa Meehan, who heads Fish and Wildlife's marine mammal program in Anchorage, Alaska, said the government will take public comments for 60 days and will announce within a year whether it should declare that polar bears are facing extinction.

"It's pretty easy to make a connection between what's happening to sea ice and what might happen to polar bears," Meehan said.

Also in Washington yesterday, two groups -- the Evangelical Climate Initiative and the Pew Center for Global Climate Change -- demanded the government curb greenhouse gas emissions. The evangelical group is running a series of national ads on the issue starting today.

"This is God's world, and any damage that we do to God's world is an offense against God himself," the Christian leaders said in a public statement.

U.S. evangelicals' broader umbrella group, the National Association of Evangelicals, decided last week not to take a position on global warming. Frank Maisano, a lobbyist who represents utilities opposed to mandatory limits on emissions, said this split within the religious community underscores the challenge of forging a national climate change policy.

"Clearly there's a heightened awareness of this issue. The argument is not about global warming," Maisano said. "The argument is, what do we do about it? That's the problem we have."

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