Administration Has Two Weeks to Make Polar Bear Decision

The administration was given a May 15 deadline to decide whether warming means polar bears merit endangered-species protection.
The administration was given a May 15 deadline to decide whether warming means polar bears merit endangered-species protection. (By Jonathan Hayward -- Associated Press)
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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A federal judge in California has ordered the Bush administration to decide by May 15 whether the polar bear deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The decision, issued late Monday by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, requires the Interior Department to reach a conclusion on whether climate change is pushing polar bears toward extinction. The agency proposed adding polar bears to its list in December 2006 because higher temperatures are shrinking the sea ice they depend on for survival, but officials have delayed a final decision on the matter for months.

After Interior missed its own Jan. 9 deadline, three environmental advocacy groups -- the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace -- sued Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and the Fish and Wildlife Service in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

In a recent filing in the case, Kempthorne proposed making a final decision by June 30. But the judge rejected that timetable, writing: "Defendants offer no specific facts that would justify the existing delay, much less further delay. To allow Defendants more time would violate the mandated listing deadlines under the [act] and congressional intent that time is of the essence in listing threatened species."

"Today's decision is a huge victory for the polar bear," said Kassie Siegel, director of the climate program at the Center for Biological Diversity, who was the lead author of the 2005 petition that prompted Interior to consider listing the species. "By May 15th the polar bear should receive the protections it deserves under the Endangered Species Act, which is the first step toward saving the polar bear and the entire Arctic ecosystem from global warming."

Interior Department spokesman Shane Wolfe said in a statement: "We have received the court's decision and are reviewing it. We will evaluate the legal options and will decide the appropriate course of action."

The final ruling on the polar bear's status could have far-reaching implications for the nation's climate policy. Several Republicans, including President Bush and Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the ranking GOP member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, have argued that environmental groups are trying to list the polar bear as threatened or endangered in order to force a federal limit on greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's unfortunate that the debate has become more about timelines than actual science," said Inhofe spokesman Matthew Dempsey. "What has become clear . . . is that listing the polar bear as a threatened species is not about protecting the polar bear but rather advancing a particular political agenda."

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