U.S. weighs listing polar bear as threatened species

By Yereth Rosen
Reuters
Wednesday, December 27, 2006; 7:25 PM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - With their icy Arctic habitat melting, polar bears need new protections under the Endangered Species Act, Bush administration officials said on Wednesday in a decision that raised questions about the president's skeptical stance on global warming.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that the bears, a white-furred icon of the North, be listed as "threatened" under the act. Such a listing would force government agencies to ensure they take no action that jeopardizes the animal's existence.

That in turn could pressure the government to consider tougher measures to clean up the air because most scientists believe carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming. Bush administration officials, however, indicated there would be no new curbs on oil drilling in Alaska or limits on greenhouse-gas

emissions.

The proposal, reached in a settlement with environmental groups that had sued the Bush administration for allegedly failing to protect the bears, means a formal listing decision will be made within 12 months of further study, officials said.

"We are making this proposal because a scientific review of the species by the Fish and Wildlife Service found that populations may be threatened by receding sea ice, which polar bears use as a platform for many activities essential to their life cycle, including hunting for their main prey, Arctic seals," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said in a telephone a news conference.

Still, Kempthorne said an endangered species listing could not be used to trigger new limits to greenhouse-gas emissions.

"That whole argument of climate change is beyond the scope of the Endangered Species Act," he said.

Another Bush administration official absolved the oil industry on Alaska's North Slope of blame for the polar bears' woes.

"All of the 30 years of experience that we've had on the North Slope has proven to us that the oil industry has no impact," said Dale Hall, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Kassie Siegel, an attorney for one of the groups that sued to win protections for polar bears, disputed Hall's conclusion.

She said even if the oil industry, which produces fossil fuels that create greenhouse gases, had no direct impact on bears in the past, the changes to habitat make the bears more vulnerable to industrial activities.


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