The Threatened Polar Bear

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

FISH AND Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall's announcement on Jan. 7 that his agency was delaying its recommendation on whether the polar bear should be listed as a "threatened" species set off alarms among environmentalists that President Bush was conspiring to further the interests of Big Oil at polar bears' expense. There's no evidence to support the conspiracy theory. In fact, an oil lease sale off Alaska's northwest coast may deserve to go forward whether the polar bear gets the designation or not. But to deflect suspicion -- understandable, given the administration's record on the environment and climate change -- the Fish and Wildlife Service should reach its conclusion on the polar bear before next month's lease sale.

Two things are happening at once here. First, there is the consideration of the "threatened" species designation. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who will make the decision with the advice of the Fish and Wildlife Service, proposed last January that the polar bear be listed as a species that could be endangered in the foreseeable future. That triggered a year-long review and comment period. A September report from the U.S. Geological Survey revealed that a melting of Arctic ice caused by global warming would wipe out two-thirds of the world's polar bear population, estimated at 20,000 to 25,000, and all of Alaska's estimated 4,700 polar bears, by 2050. NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies provided further evidence for warming, saying 2007 was the Earth's second-hottest year on record. Mr. Hall is taking up to 30 more days, he said, to finalize his recommendation. Listing the polar bear as threatened because of global warming would be the administration's most significant recognition of the impact of climate change.

Next at issue is a long-planned oil exploration lease sale Feb. 6 by the Minerals Management Service of 29 million acres in Alaska's Chukchi Sea, home to an estimated 2,000 polar bears. The lease sale documents are crammed with restrictions, prohibitions and cautions pertaining to animal life, including polar bears. Potential lessees were informed that an impending "threatened" designation for polar bears could require additional limits. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists in Alaska point to the rapid Arctic ice melt as the greatest danger to polar bears and say oil exploration has a negligible impact on them.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, will look into the delay of the threatened-species designation and the lease sale at a Jan. 17 hearing. Such oversight ought to bring more clarity to these questions. An earlier decision on the polar bear would help, too.

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