The Threatened Polar Bear

Thursday, May 15, 2008

INTERIOR SECRETARY Dirk Kempthorne held true to the letter of the law in the Endangered Species Act and announced yesterday that the polar bear will be listed as a "threatened" species. Its habitat -- Arctic sea ice -- is disappearing because of global warming. This is the most significant acknowledgment yet by the Bush administration of the impact of climate change. But this good news for the bear is a potential regulatory nightmare that Mr. Kempthorne tried to avoid.

There is one overarching rule that guides the decision on whether to add a species to the "threatened" or "endangered" list: The decision must be reached "solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available." Economic and political considerations must not influence the ruling from the interior secretary. Kempthorne called the Endangered Species Act "perhaps the least flexible law Congress has ever enacted."

Mr. Kempthorne said the decision was based on three findings. "First, sea ice is vital to polar bear survival," he said. "Second, the polar bear's sea-ice habitat has dramatically melted in recent decades. Third, computer models suggest sea ice is likely to further recede in the future." Under the act, a recovery plan must be devised and critical habitat designated to save the polar bear. Also, other federal agencies must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on any actions or permits they grant that might jeopardize the species.

Would federal agencies have to consult about activities far from the Arctic that might contribute to climate change, such as a new coal-fired power plant in Texas? Not surprisingly, Mr. Kempthorne said no. To ensure that the listing would not be used as a backdoor way to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, the secretary took several actions, including ordering the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue guidance to its staff that the best scientific evidence "cannot make a causal connection between harm to listed species or their habitats and greenhouse gas emissions from a specific facility, or resource development project, or government action."

That Mr. Kempthorne has to contort his agency to ensure that it doesn't get dragged into setting U.S. climate policy is simply more proof of the need for such a policy, supported by the White House and ratified by Congress, that aims at sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Though the polar bear deserves protection, the Endangered Species Act is not the means and the Fish and Wildlife Service is not the agency to arrest global warming.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company