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Politicizing the Polar Bear

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Posted on Jun 30, 2008
polar bear
Richard Ellis

By Richard Ellis

(Page 5)

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:

“Today I am listing the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. I believe this decision is most consistent with the record and legal standards of the Endangered Species Act—perhaps the least flexible law Congress has ever enacted. I am also announcing that this listing decision will be accompanied by administrative guidance and a rule that defines the scope of impact that my decision will have, in order to protect the polar bear while preventing unintended harm to the society and economy of the United States. ... This has been a difficult decision. But in the 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.”

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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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By samosamo, July 2, 2008 at 8:00 pm Link to this comment

Well I say or actually don’t have to say: Let the drilling begin because who is going to stop a bunch of oil addicted mother fuckers that think that the price of oil and gas will go down because of drilling lowers the price of gas and oil. Well, so they can go back to driving those monster vehicles, heck in my state, you would never even know that gas was $4/gal and the suv and big boy trucks to ride around town in were an issue to dive at the drop of a hat.
And the environment will remain pristine. Plenty of fresh air and clean water. Let em drill. Unless the human population goes below 1billion and stays there, everything will be lost on this planet, sooner than later

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By Wallace Kaufman, July 2, 2008 at 3:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If one is hell bent on listing the polar bear as endangered for the sake of political ends, then science, logic and experience are no obstacle to weak and phoney arguments.  Take the proposition that development threatens to disrupt their lives and existence. I have traveled fairly well in the Russian arctic where polar bears are numerous, and I have video of them visiting towns and small cities.  Like many other bears, they don’t mind being around humans. 

Or take the idea that increasing bear populations (a fact) shouldn’t stand in the way.  Well, what does constitute delisting or evidence of survival?  Regulate hunting, fine. Protect special habitat areas, fine.  But evoke all the draconian and legal battles of endangered status?  Illogical, or perhaps just political.

The idea that bears need to hunt from ice floes and that their only land food is reindeer, is also nonsense.  Wrangell Island bears and many others hunt sea mammals very successfully along the shore line. 

I love the arctic and its wildlife. I don’t find much use for people who lie about them.

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By Pacrat, July 2, 2008 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

At last there is scientific proof that polar bears are dangerous and major contributors to global warming. And here we have been blaming coal power generating plants! This news will wipe the smiles off the faces of those polar bears!

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By Bu-SHIT-ler, July 2, 2008 at 7:33 am Link to this comment

Kath, I agree with you, and to re-assure you, these sheeple aren’t getting away with it. As these evil human parasites continue to terrorize people, and all life as we know it, their complete extinction is imminent. I’m glad that I got to be part of a Team that will help decide the fate of these low-life scum. My research is just about complete…all the globe’s struggles, the parasites impoverishing people, the groups responsible for life and death decisions, the countries responsible for global proliferation/global warming, everyone in industries that destroy life, and lives, regardless of species, etc., etc., etc. These parasites who should never have seen the light of day (Soulless beings born into evil families), aka: God’s bastards. There will be sweeping change, and there will be no mercy upon those who accomodate, condone, conspire with, or even support such beings. Humanity needs to stand up for itself if it wants to avoid the same fate as the dinossaurs. The pinnacle of Humanity’s Fate is at its tipping point, and the majority need to confront the minority before it’s too late. Politics is destroying everything it touches, and Capitalism is tightening its grip on the globe and all its resources. When the 2 come together as they already have, you get Socio-Economic Terrorism, and the ultimate consequence will be a global genocide through various conspiracies involving every major industry out there, and with no end in sight, unless the people take their governments back. If people fail in this, God will ultimately have to decide whether to save the planet from Humanity, or let Humanity destroy itself and the planet in order to start anew…I don’t believe the latter choice would work because the creation/preservation of all other species would have to be protected.

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By Gloria Picchetti, July 2, 2008 at 5:04 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Isn’t there anyone who can donate old barges and things that float to be anchored where the polar bears and other animals can swim to while we learn how to deal with Global Warming? I know it’s one of my dumbest ever ideas but doesn’t anyone want beautiful wild animals to survive?

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By kath cantarella, July 1, 2008 at 5:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

People will soon be starving along with the bears. Is there a bleak justice in that? Maybe not. The ones who’ll suffer the least are probably the ones who are the most responsible.

But we all create our societies, and we are all to blame. I feel sorry for the kids, and their kids. What subtle horrors we hand down to those we love.

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