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Politicizing the Polar Bear
Posted on Jun 30, 2008
And on April 17, having missed its deadline by more than three months, the Interior Department announced that it needed an additional 10 weeks because of “the complexity of the legal and scientific issues.” Kassie Siegel, spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, said “these are not questions for attorneys, they’re questions for scientists.” She also said that the request for more time was probably a tactic by political appointees to delay a decision until the Mineral Management Service could finish issuing Chukchi leases to further protect the leases from legal challenges. On April 29 U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilkin ruled that the Bush administration had two weeks to decide whether polar bears deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act because of impacts from the warming climate. “Today’s decision is a huge victory for the polar bear; by May 15th the polar bear should receive the protection it deserves,” said Siegel. The court rejected a request by the Interior Department for more time, saying, “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 ESA and congressional intent that time is of the essence in listing threatened species.” The Bush administration has argued in various courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, that such efforts will fail because, among other things, the “remedy” for limiting global warming must be applied globally, not just in the United States.
One day before the Interior Department was to appear in court to respond to the environmentalists’ lawsuit, Dirk Kempthorne declared the polar bear “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Even though it took pressure from environmental groups to force the release of the report, Interior had known for a long time that the bears were in trouble. At 368 pages, “Determination of Threatened Status for the Polar Bear Throughout Its Range” could not have been assembled overnight. It incorporates a complete natural history of the polar bear; a detailed discussion of the condition of polar bear populations around the world; a comprehensive analysis of the decline of the Arctic sea ice; inclusion of the relevant statutes and acts; and specific recommendations under the law.
At the May 14 press conference at which he announced the decision, Kempthorne said:
On its face, this seemed like a victory for the environmentalists and the bears—in The Wall Street Journal, Ian Talley wrote “The Bush Administration handed environmentalists a major victory”—but it was actually a ruling that provided almost no protection for the bears, while the government announced that it would not stand in the way of oil prospecting in the bears’ habitat. Listing the polar bear as “threatened” under the ESA meant that bears shot in Canada (whole or in parts) could not be brought into the United States, so in that reading, a few bears were protected, but otherwise bears at risk because the sea ice was melting were no better off than they were before Kempthorne’s announcement. Acknowledging that global warming has caused the retreat of Arctic ice, and that human activities had “some impact” on climate change, he said that no link could be made between any individual power plant or effort to drill for gas or oil, and the fate of the bear. “The loss of sea ice, and not oil and gas exploration or subsistence activity, is the primary threat to the bear,” he said. Via Kempthorne, the administration is invoking a loophole called the 4(d) rule that limits protection for the ice bears and their shrinking sea-ice habitat in areas where oil and gas development is planned or proceeding. Essentially the administration has signaled that it will extend the bears no greater protection from oil and gas development than they previously had under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Avoiding the obvious connections between greenhouse gases, global warming and the loss of the bears’ hunting grounds, Kempthorne said that his ruling “should not open the door to use the ESA to regulate greenhouse gases from automobiles, power plants and other sources. That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the Endangered Species Act. ESA is not the right tool to regulate global climate change.” Kempthorne was parroting the words of George W. Bush, who announced in April that “the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act were never meant to regulate global climate change.” Such a position is logically and ethically indefensible. For the administration to determine that the polar bear is threatened, it had to conclude that global warming will melt the ice that polar bears need to survive. Having reached that conclusion, the administration is required by the Endangered Species Act to take action to slow global warming. The Bush administration cannot decide not to do its job and enforce the law at the same time.
The fate of the polar bears is still undecided. Oil leases have been issued, and Interior has just ruled that, despite their listing of the polar bear as “endangered,” it would be OK if some of the bears were harmed (for which read: shot) by oil drillers in pursuit of their valuable product—which is certainly more valuable than any old bears. Gov. Palin of Alaska is suing the federal government, holding that protecting the polar bear interferes with Alaska’s economic development, and Safari Club International, a Dallas-based organization dedicated to “protecting the freedom to hunt,” is suing the U.S. government too, requesting that the polar bear be removed from the endangered species list so that its members would not be deprived of the opportunity to shoot a polar bear in Canada and bring home the trophy head or hide.
Mindless of the controversies surrounding them, Arctic polar bears roam what’s left of the Arctic ice, looking for seals to eat or a snowbank in which to dig a den. Maybe the bears in the Central Park Zoo are the lucky ones: Even though they’re stuck in a poor approximation of their vast, icy habitat, at least nobody’s going to drill for oil in their enclosure, and nobody’s going to shoot at them. They will be able to live out their lives unthreatened, unlisted and unconcerned about where their next meal is coming from. The way things are going now, polar bears like Gus and Ida may be the only ones our grandchildren will ever see.
Richard Ellis is the author of numerous works on maritime life, including “Tuna: A Love Story,” to be published next month by Alfred A. Knopf. He is also at work on a definitive history of the polar bear and the continuing threat to its survival posed by global warming.
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