Polar Bear Is Named 'Threatened' Species

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne listed polar bears as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act yesterday, saying the loss of Arctic sea ice in a warming climate could drive them to the brink of extinction in less than four decades.

Although the Bush administration handed environmentalists a victory they had sought for more than three years, Kempthorne said he would ensure that his decision did not "open the door" for activists to force the adoption of limits on greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming.

The act "is not the right tool to set U.S. climate-change policy," he said in a news conference. "This has been a difficult decision. But in light of the scientific record and the restraints of the inflexible law that guides me, I believe it was the only decision I could make."

The decision to list polar bears, which have become the iconic symbol of global warming's impact, highlights how an administration opposed to mandatory cuts in emissions has begun to acknowledge the growing evidence of their effects. Kempthorne pointed to satellite images of shrinking Arctic sea ice that has outpaced scientists' most dire projections. Polar bears use sea ice as a platform to hunt ringed seals and other prey.

"The fact is that sea ice is receding in the Arctic," he said. "As you can see, when we have looked at what is actually happening in the Arctic, we have found considerably less sea ice than the models are projecting. Because polar bears are vulnerable to this loss of habitat, they are, in my judgment, likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future -- in this case, 45 years."

Under the law, the federal government is now required to draft a recovery plan for the species, which entails assessing the population and its habitat. The ruling also compels federal agencies to consult with the Interior Department when considering decisions that could further imperil the polar bears.

Administration officials, however, sought to minimize the policy consequences of the decision -- the first time the Endangered Species Act has been invoked to protect an animal principally threatened by global warming. Kempthorne made clear that the decision would not justify regulating emissions from power plants, vehicles or other human activities.

Dale Hall, who directs the Fish and Wildlife Service, which decides how to protect listed species, said such regulations would be justified only if the administration could prove a direct connection between the emissions and the polar bears' predicament.

"We have to be able to connect the dots," Hall said. "We don't have the science today to be able to do that."

But environmentalists, who by and large praised the decision, said the administration would have no choice but to curb greenhouse gases.

"The law says what it says, not what the administration wishes it says," said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. "This is great news for polar bears. . . . It's also a watershed moment, the strongest statement we've had to date from this administration about global warming."

Conservative and business groups, however, hailed Kempthorne's intention to limit the regulatory fallout.

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