Interior Dept. proposal to list polar bear as threatened due to loss of sea ice

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The U.S. Department of the Interior announced on December 27 that it is proposing formally to list the polar bear as “threatened” with extinction, because rising Arctic temperature is causing the loss of sea ice, on which polar bears depend for hunting.  The proposal, now being published for public review and comment, results from a scientifically based analysis conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  It was announced just in time to meet a deadline stemming from the settlement of a lawsuit brought against the administration by three environmental groups, who challenged Interior’s dilatory response to their initial petition almost 2 years ago. 

The Washington Post reported:

U.S. Wants Polar Bears Listed as Threatened
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 27, 2006; Page A01

The Bush administration has decided to propose listing the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, putting the U.S. government on record as saying that global warming could drive one of the world’s most recognizable animals out of existence….

Identifying polar bears as threatened with extinction could have an enormous political and practical impact. As the world’s largest bear and as an object of children’s affection as well as Christmastime Coca-Cola commercials, the polar bear occupies an important place in the American psyche. Because scientists have concluded that carbon dioxide from power-plant and vehicle emissions is helping drive climate change worldwide, putting polar bears on the endangered species list raises the legal question of whether the government would be required to compel U.S. industries to curb their carbon dioxide output.

“We’ve reviewed all the available data that leads us to believe the sea ice the polar bear depends on has been receding,” said the Interior official, who added that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have concluded that polar bears could be endangered within 45 years. “Obviously, the sea ice is melting because the temperatures are warmer”….

The Post noted that the proposal met a legal deadline:

By submitting the proposal today, the Interior Department is meeting a deadline under a legal settlement with three environmental advocacy groups—the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace—that argue the government has not responded quickly enough to the polar bear’s plight. The department has been examining the status of polar bears for more than two years.

NRDC senior attorney Andrew Wetzler, one of the lawyers who filed suit against the administration, welcomed the proposal for listing.

“It’s such a loud recognition that global warming is real,” Wetzler said. “It is rapidly threatening the polar bear and, in fact, an entire ecosystem with utter destruction.”

From the environmental groups press release:

“This is a victory for the Polar Bear, and all wildlife threatened by global warming,” said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity (Center), one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “This is a watershed decision in the way this country addresses global warming. There is still time to save Polar Bears but we must reduce greenhouse gas pollution immediately.”…

The USF&WS now has one additional year to obtain peer review and public comment on its proposal before issuing a final listing decision for the Polar Bear.

Once listed, federal agencies will be obligated to ensure that any action they authorize, fund, or carry out will not jeopardize the Polar Bear’s continued existence or adversely modify its critical habitat, and the USF&WS will be required to prepare a recovery plan for the Polar Bear, specifying measures necessary for its protection.

“Global warming is the single biggest threat to Polar Bears’ survival, and this will require the government to address the impacts on the Polar Bear,” said Andrew Wetzler, senior attorney at NRDC. “The time for half-measures and delay is over. We must face the scientific warnings and address this challenge now.”

Polar Bears live only in the Arctic and are totally dependent on the sea ice for all of their essential needs. The rapid warming of the Arctic and melting of the sea ice poses an overwhelming threat to Polar Bears, which could become the first mammal to lose 100 percent of its habitat to global warming….

“The United States has failed to lead the world in tackling global warming. With under five percent of the world’s people, we generate more than 20 percent of the global warming pollution,” said Kert Davies, Greenpeace research director. “We must start cutting greenhouse gas emissions or the Polar Bear will be pushed to the brink of extinction within our lifetime.”…

“Sand in the hourglass is running out for Polar Bears,” said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., “Congress needs to take bold steps to reduce global warming pollution before time runs out for this and other species.”

Recall that the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace also filed the lawsuit in federal court in November 2006 that would compel the administration to undertake a second National Assessment of Climate Change, under the Global Change Research Act of 1990.  See our November 14 entry.  For a letter to administration officials by Rep. Inslee and 23 other house members also calling for a second National Assessment, see our December 22 entry.

The Interior Dept./Fish & Wildlife Service notice of petition finding and proposed rule includes an acknowledgement of the department’s initial delay and that the current action is the result of a legal settlement with the environmental groups:

DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
Fish and Wildlife Service
Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 12-Month Petition Finding and Proposed Rule to List the Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) as Threatened Throughout Its Range
ACTION: Proposed rule and notice of 12-month finding.

SUMMARY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), announce a 12-month finding on a petition to list the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) as threatened with critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act). After review of all available scientific and commercial information, we find that listing the polar bear as a threatened species under the Act is warranted. Accordingly, we herein propose to list the polar bear as threatened throughout its range pursuant to the Act. This proposed rule, if made final, would extend the Act’s protections to this species. Critical habitat for the polar bear is not determinable at this time. The Service seeks data and comments from the public on this proposed listing rule….

Previous Federal Action

On February 17, 2005, we received a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, dated February 16, 2005, requesting that we list the polar bear as threatened throughout its range, and that critical habitat be designated concurrently with the listing. The petition was clearly identified as such, and contained the name, authorized signature, and address of the requesting party. Included in the petition was supporting information regarding the species’ taxonomy and ecology, historical and current distribution, present status, and actual and potential causes of decline. We acknowledged the receipt of the petition in a letter dated July 1, 2005. In that letter, we also advised the petitioners that, due to funding constraints in fiscal year (FY) 2005, and the need to comply with court orders and settlement agreements, we would not be able to begin processing the petition at that time.

In a letter dated July 5, 2005, the petitioner informed us that two additional parties were joining as petitioners: the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace, Inc. In the same letter, the petitioners informed us of two new scientific articles, Hansen et al. (2005) and Stroeve et al. (2005), that they wanted us to consider when conducting our evaluation of the petition to list the polar bear. In a letter we received on December 27, 2005, the petitioners submitted additional new information to be considered, along with the information in the initial petition, in making our 90-day finding.

On December 15, 2005, the petitioners filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, challenging our failure to issue a 90-day finding in response to the petition as required by section 4(b)(3) of the Act. On February 7, 2006, we made our 90-day finding that the petition presented substantial scientific information indicating that listing the polar bear may be warranted; the finding and our initiation of a status review was published in the Federal Register on February 9, 2006 (71 FR 6745). In a stipulated settlement agreement approved by the Court on July 5, 2006, we agreed to submit a 12-month finding to the Federal Register by December 27, 2006. This notice constitutes our 12-month finding for the petition to list the polar bear as threatened, in fulfillment of the stipulated settlement agreement.

The Washington Post quoted Robert Corell, former chair of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA):

Robert Correll [correction: Corell], the scientist who chaired the international Arctic Climate Impact Assessment in 2004, said in an interview that the proposal to place polar bears on the endangered species list is “highly justified.”

Correll, now directs the global change program at the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, added that he is participating in an administration-funded study at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on how climate change could affect national security and foreign policy.

That, along with the proposal on polar bears, he said, “plays into a reality that, in my opinion, they’re going to be rethinking their position” on global warming.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment produced a major scientific report by an international group of hundreds of scientists.  Thanks to our friend Bob Corell, the ACIA report received substantial public attention around the world from policymakers and the media.  But no thanks to the Bush administration, which, after funding the development of the report, was clearly reluctant to even acknowledge its existence, let alone seriously promote it and embrace its principal findings.   

Until now, at least.

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