Fish and Wildlife Service suspicious delay of decision on polar bear threatened status


On January 7 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a politically suspicious delay in making a court-ordered ruling on “threatened” status protection for the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. The administration could refuse to give the polar bear threatened status only by denying the science of global warming. Are administration officials politicizing the agency’s decision and its timing? One year ago, on January 8, 2007, we explained how Interior Secretary Kempthorne was misrepresenting the analysis of his own agency’s scientists of the threat to the polar bear from projected disappearance of sea ice habitat due to global warming. 

From “Wildlife Service Delays Polar Bear Report,” Washington Post article, January 8:

Federal officials said yesterday that they will need a few more weeks to decide whether polar bears need protection under the Endangered Species Act because of global warming.

The deadline was tomorrow, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it now hopes to provide a recommendation to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in time for a decision by him within the next month….

Listing polar bears as “threatened” with extinction could trigger limits on development that adversely affects the animals. That listing is a step below “endangered,” the most severe classification under the Endangered Species Act….

From Center for Biological Diversity press release, January 7:

Bush Administration to Miss Deadline for
Polar Bear Endangered Species Act Listing
Conservation Groups Will Return to Court to Enforce Deadline

WASHINGTON, DC– In response to the Bush administration’s announcement that it will not meet Wednesday’s deadline to issue a final Endangered Species Act listing determination for the polar bear due to global warming, conservation groups announced their intent to go back to court to enforce the deadline.

The administration was required by law to make its decision by Wednesday following its proposal one year ago, but today announced that it expects to “ finalize the decision within the next month.” The Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace will begin legal action Wednesday with a formal notice to sue as required by the Endangered Species Act.

“We certainly hope that the polar bear will be listed within the next month. But this is an administration of broken promises, from Bush’s campaign pledge to regulate greenhouse gases to Secretary Kempthorne’s failure to list a single species under the Endangered Species Act in the last 607 days,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the 2005 petition. “We’ll begin the enforcement process Wednesday.” …

Here’s one thing that looks politically suspicious about the delay, from “Groups cite oil leases in U.S. delay on rating polar bear’s status,” San Francisco Chronicle article, January 8:

[M]ajor environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace, as well as some congressional leaders are suspicious that the delay means more than just taking 30 days longer to hear the news.

The administration has long resisted conclusions by international scientific bodies that global warming is a human-caused phenomenon, and it has actively opposed regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked to the warming atmosphere and oceans.

Environmental groups fear that the polar bear decision has been purposefully delayed to allow a first-time oil lease sale to go forward Feb. 6 in Alaska’s pristine Chukchi Sea, which provides one-tenth of the habitat for the world’s polar bears….

Andrew Wexler, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, said, “The one-month delay comes at a time that is very fortuitous for oil and gas companies that want to drill in the Chukchi.”

If the bear were listed before the lease-sale decision, Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service might have to delay or stop the sale, Wexler said….

“Over and over again, Bush appointees have rewritten scientific decisions under the (act). We’ve had these repeatedly overturned by courts,” said Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Former Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald resigned last year after an inspector general’s report said she manipulated agency biologists’ work, bullied scientists and colluded with industry lobbyists.

“We still have political appointees in these agencies, and political people should not be getting their hands on this,” Siegel said….

In speaking with reporters, Hall answered questions regarding the timing of the delay and the upcoming lease sale in the Chukchi Sea.

If the polar bear were listed, the lease would have to meet the protections under the act and other laws, Hall said.

Hall said he hasn’t spoken to White House staff about the polar bear decision. He discusses it with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, he said….

Director Hall “discusses it with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.” Well:

One year ago today, on January 8, 2007, we explained how Interior Secretary Kempthorne was misrepresenting the analysis of his own agency’s scientists in their report on the threat to the polar bear’s existence. In discussing his department’s proposal for public comment on designation of the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, Secretary Kempthorne said to reporters: (1) that the conclusion in the report by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists that the threat to the polar bear’s survival due to loss of critical sea ice habitat was not related to analysis of the causes of climate change; and (2) that sea ice loss was the sole “factor” leading to the designation of the polar bear as threatened.  Neither of these assertions was accurate.

This matter of deciding on legal protection of polar bear habitat is another example of why, in order to get past Administration spin and politicization of professional decisionmaking, Congress and the media need to be able to talk directly with federal scientists, not filtered through administration politicians. 

See our earlier posts:

January 9, 2007: Polar bear decision “a rare case of science actually triumphing over politics”

January 8, 2007: Interior Secretary misrepresented agency report deeming polar bears threatened

December 29, 2006: Polar Bears, Pt 2: “Habitat loss and inadequate regulatory mechanisms to address sea ice recession”

December 28, 2006: Interior Dept. proposal to list polar bear as threatened due to loss of sea ice

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