By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 11:35 PM
The Obama administration reaffirmed Wednesday its decision to designate polar bears as a "threatened," not "endangered," species, in defiance of the wishes of conservationists who say the bears are in danger of extinction because their arctic hunting grounds are melting.
The administration was under a court-imposed deadline to decide whether it would upgrade the bears' status to "endangered."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told a U.S. District Court judge Wednesday that the threatened designation will not change because polar bears were not considered to be in danger of extinction at the time of the listing in 2008.
"The Service explained how its biologists had concluded in 2008 that the polar bear was not facing sudden and catastrophic threats [and] was still a widespread species that had not been restricted to a critically small range or critically low numbers," the agency said in a statement.
Threatened species receive most of the same regulatory protections as those listed under the Endangered Species Act, including a requirement that federal agencies refrain from actions that might jeopardize their existence or destroy or harm their habitat.
Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, called the administration's decision "a huge disappointment." Arctic ice, the bears' hunting ground, is melting and bears are starving to death, she said.
"It's a wasted opportunity to do the right thing," Siegel said. "The government's own studies show about an 80 percent chance of extinction of two-thirds of the world's polar bears in the next 40 years."