Yesterday was the deadline for the US Department of Interior to respond to a law suit waged against them last year by a coalition of environmental NGOs led by the Center for Biological Diversity. At issue in the suit was the administration’s failure to list the arctic-dwelling polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Various environmental and scientific groups have argued that the fundamental transformations in the circumpolar arctic climate have contributed to dwindling populations of polar bears. A particular problem is the melting of ice over which the bears travel to find food. As the ice melts, the populations find the process of procuring food more difficult which contributes to stress and high levels of mortality.
The suit required the US Fish and Wildlife Service to respond to petitions for listing the polar bear as a threatened species, and yesterday’s report [.pdf] acknowledges the validity of the polar bear’s threatened status.
What is significant in the report is the half-hearted acknowledgment that climate change is a factor in the polar bear’s demise. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne was a bit evasive on this issue even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. In a news conference yesterday, Kempthorne both acknowledged that climate change is a factor in the destruction of polar bear habitats, but also claimed that addressing that issue was outside of the mandate of species protection under the Endangered Species Act. Here is an excerpt from the press conference:
QUESTION: Thanks very much. Secretary, thank you.
In your opening remarks, you pointed out very clearly that the melting sea ice was the cause of this loss of habitat.
And I think you also said, if I remember what you said correctly, that the administration treats climate change very seriously and recognizes the role of greenhouse gases.
In those circumstances, under the 1973 act, is the administration now obligated to act to curb the omission of greenhouse gases? And, if not, why not?
KEMPTHORNE: After the — and this was stated earlier — with the Endangered Species Act — and that’s the element that we’re working with right now — that whole aspect of climate change is beyond the scope of the Endangered Species Act.
Now, as also has been pointed out, with President Bush, with his administration — where there’s been an investment of $29 billion dealing with this issue of climate change.
So in a different venue, there will continue to be discussions, identification of the science, discussions as to what efforts can be done.
But we’re actually seeing that there has been some reductions here in the United States, so we’re going to continue that effort.
But that is outside the scope of this.
What we’re talking about right now with the Endangered Species Act is one species, a polar bear.
And during the next 12 months, it will be an evaluation of that animal, what is happening to its habitat and what sort of mitigations could be brought forward that could be of help to that species.
QUESTION: Thanks so much.
If I may follow up, if you’re saying the act obliges you to trying to protect the habitat, and you’re also admitting that the administration sees a link between climate change and greenhouse gases: Why are you not, therefore, legally obliged to try and deal with those greenhouse gases?
KEMPTHORNE: Well, again, it’s not part of the Endangered Species Act.
Other commentators see this as much more significant than Kempthorne. Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defence Council suggests that if the polar bear is indeed listed as an Endangered Species, then the federal government will have to develop a recovery plan which would necessarily have to deal with climate change.
Over the next year, the Department of Interior will continue to study the issue and will allow for a period of public comment before the polar bear is officially designated as threatened. According to the Fish and Wildlife website dealing with polar bear conservation, the 90 day period for public commentary will likely begin on 11 January 2007.