Monday, March 10, 2008

Groups Sue Administration To Force Polar Bear Protection

Mar 10: As previously promised [See WIMS 1/8/08], the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace sued the Bush administration for missing the legal deadline to issue a final decision on whether to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming. Andrew Wetzler, director of the Endangered Species Project at NRDC said, “The Endangered Species Act is absolutely unambiguous: the Fish and Wildlife Service was required to make a final decision months ago. Now it’s up to a federal court to throw this incredible animal a lifeline. We need urgent action from this administration, to protect the polar bear and reduce greenhouse gas pollution, not continued delay.” The groups filed their lawsuit today in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The lawsuit seeks a court order compelling the administration to issue the final decision on polar bear protection immediately.

According to an NRDC release, 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 pose an overwhelming threat to the polar bear, which could become the first mammal to lose 100 percent of its habitat to global warming. Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, and lead author of the 2005 petition seeking the Endangered Species Act listing said, “The Bush administration seems intent on slamming shut the narrow window of opportunity we have to save polar bears,” said We simply will not sit back and passively allow the administration to condemn polar bears to extinction.”

The Endangered Species Act listing process for the polar bear due to global warming was initiated with a scientific petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC, and Greenpeace. In December, 2005, these groups sued the Bush administration for failing to respond to the petition. As a result of that first lawsuit, in February 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that protection of polar bears "may be warranted," and commenced a full status review of the species. A settlement agreement in that case committed the Service to make the second of three required findings in the listing process by December 27, 2007, at which time the Service announced the proposal to list the species as “threatened.” By law, the Service was required to make a final listing decision within one year of the proposal. The decision is now more than 2 months overdue.

The groups note that the Federal government initiated lease sales to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea earlier this month [See WIMS 2/7/08]. Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace USA said, “Our lawsuit has forced the Bush administration’s hand on the issue of global warming like no other, even as it rubberstamps drilling rights for Big Oil in pristine polar bear habitat. If the federal government is really serious about protecting the polar bear, then its next steps will be to cancel lease sales in the Chukchi Sea and immediately implement a plan for deep cuts in U.S. global warming pollution.”

Since the petition to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act was first filed in February 2005, new science paints a dim picture of the polar bear’s future. In September [See WIMS 9/7/07], the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population would likely be extinct by 2050, including all polar bears within the United States. Several leading scientists now predict the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer as early as 2012. September 2007 shattered all previous records for sea ice loss when the Arctic ice cap shrank to a record one million square miles -- an equivalent of six times the size of California -- below the average summer sea-ice extent of the past several decades, reaching levels not predicted to occur until mid-century.

Shrinking sea ice also drastically restricts polar bears’ ability to hunt their main prey, ice seals. In the spring of 2006, scientists located the bodies of several bears that had starved to death. Unprecedented instances of polar bear cannibalism have also been documented along the north coast of Alaska and Canada. Listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act guarantees federal agencies will be obligated to ensure that any action they authorize, fund, or carry out will not jeopardize the polar bears’ continued existence or adversely modify their critical habitat, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be required to prepare a recovery plan for the polar bear, specifying measures necessary for its protection.

To date, the groups say the government has received approximately 670,000 comments in support of protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, including letters from eminent polar bear experts, climate scientists, and more than 60 members of Congress. There have also been House and Senate hearings on the issue (see links below).

Access a release from NRDC (
click here). Access extensive information on the Polar Bear listing from CBD (click here). Access a 1/7/08 release from FWS (click here). Access the FWS Polar Bear website for additional information (click here). Access links to the USGS reports and an executive summary on polar bears (click here). Access the 1/17/08 Markey hearing website with links to all testimony, videos of testimony, opening statement, detailed map and a release on the Markey legislation (click here). Access the 1/30/08 Senate EPW hearing website for links to all testimony and opening statements (click here). Access a 2/6/08 release from Minerals Management Service (MMS) on the Chukchi Sea sale with links to additional information (click here). Access legislative details for H.R. 5058 (click here). [*Wildlife, *Climate]