By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Senate Democrats yesterday deplored the Bush administration's failure to meet a legal deadline for determining whether global warming is pushing polar bears toward extinction and lashed their scheduled star witness -- Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne -- for declining to appear in his own defense.
Kempthorne announced 15 months ago that his department would determine within a year whether the bear should be added to the endangered species list because rapidly disappearing sea ice threatens its ability to hunt and survive, but he has yet to issue a decision. A coalition of environmental groups has sued the Interior Department for missing the one-year deadline to act.
"The Bush administration is violating the law, and that is why we're here today," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, opening the hearing. "These species do not have an indefinite time to be saved. . . . Time is running out for the polar bear, and time has run out for this decision."
Kempthorne wrote Boxer on Tuesday night to say he would "respectfully decline" the panel's invitation because he had yet to make a final determination on the polar bears' status and is the named plaintiff in the pending suit.
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) defended Kempthorne, noting that the Clinton administration had missed deadlines in listing the Canadian lynx and other animals under the Endangered Species Act. "So this is not an unprecedented occurrence, nor is it unique to the Bush administration," Inhofe said. Kempthorne "is not shirking his duty" by not testifying, he added.
Inhofe, seconded by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), said environmentalists are trying to use the act "to achieve global warming policy that special interest groups cannot otherwise achieve through the legislative process."
One of the most controversial aspects of the pending decision is that it would be largely based not on current populations but on estimates of the threat posed by predicted shrinkage of Arctic sea ice, on which the animals rely to hunt their prey.
As of 2005, a survey of the 13 bear populations in Canada and Greenland found that five were declining, three were growing and five were stable. But the ice-free period in Hudson Bay now lasts 20 days longer than it did 20 years ago, and some scientists predict that summer sea ice in the Arctic may disappear altogether within five to seven years.
William P. Horn, an Interior official under President Reagan who now represents the United States Sportsmen's Alliance, said that listing polar bears based on sea ice projections would open "a Pandora's box" and radically redefine the act.
But Douglas B. Inkley, a senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, said government scientists have calculated that at the current rate of ice loss, two-thirds of the bears will vanish by 2050, including all those in U.S. territory.
"Each one of these species is like a fire alarm going off, warning us that something is amiss. We can pretend to not hear the fire alarm; we can pretend the fire isn't real," Inkley said. "Instead, the appropriate action is to put out the fire by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions."