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Species Act Won't Be Used to Force Lower Emissions

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 9, 2009

The federal bureaucracy that safeguards endangered species isn't equipped to tackle climate change, Interior Department officials said yesterday -- declining to protect Alaskan polar bears by cracking down on polluters in the Lower 48.

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The decision, announced yesterday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, was the Obama administration's first word on an emerging environmental question.

The 35-year-old Endangered Species Act was designed to save animals from close-by threats such as hunting, trapping and logging. But, now that U.S. species from mountainsides to tropical seas are threatened by climate change, can it be used to fight a global problem?

Salazar, upholding a decision made in the last months of the Bush administration, said no.

"The Endangered Species Act is not the appropriate tool for us to deal with what is a global issue," Salazar said in a conference call with reporters. Instead, he said, the administration will push Congress to enact legislation setting national caps on greenhouse gases.

Polar bears were listed as threatened last year, the first time any species had been given protection primarily because of climate change. Scientists say that warming temperatures erode the bears' sea-ice habitat. If current trends continue, three of the world's four major populations may be extinct by 2075.

Environmental groups said this ought to trigger federal action against the source of the problem, greenhouse-gas emissions.

But yesterday, federal officials said that was impractical. They said the law requires a causal connection between a particular polar bear and a particular polluter's emissions -- an impossible task, they said, given that greenhouse gases come from factories, power plants and automobiles, many of them thousands of miles away.

"We have to have the smoking gun and the dead animal," said Valerie Fellows, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In this case, Fellows said, agency scientists cannot prove that sort of link: "You can't link the power plant in Florida with a dead bear in Alaska." Officials from several industry associations used this same logic yesterday in applauding the decision.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they will still protect the bear from threats closer to home, such as hunting and oil and gas exploration in Alaska. They added that, for procedural reasons, rejecting the Bush administration rule would not have immediately changed the rules that apply to polar bears anyway.

But the decision could still set an important precedent, as legislation to cap greenhouse-gas emissions is still a long way from passage, and a number of other animals with climate-related problems are already on the federal docket.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is already pondering how to help two Caribbean corals dying in a warmer ocean -- and this week it agreed to consider the possibility of protecting the American pika, a mountain mammal that can't live above 77.9 degrees.

"If we were in a situation where we already had very, very strong climate legislation," the polar bear decision would be less important, said Melanie Duchin, a Greenpeace "campaigner" in Anchorage, Alaska. "Right now, it's a vacuum."


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