DOI Lists Polar Bear as Threatened

Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne accepted the recommendation of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) at a May 14 press conference.

The listing is based on the best available science, which shows that loss of sea ice threatens and will likely continue to threaten polar bear habitat. This loss of habitat puts polar bears at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future, the standard established by the ESA for designating a threatened species.

Kempthorne also said, "This listing decision will be accompanied by administrative guidance and a rule that defines the scope of impact my decision will have, in order to protect the polar bear while limiting the unintended harm to the society and economy of the United States."

"I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting. Any real solution requires action by all major economies for it to be effective.That is why I am taking administrative and regulatory action to make certain the ESA isn't abused to make global warming policies," he added.

In January 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the polar bear as threatened throughout its range based on receding sea ice. In September 2007, the U.S. Geological Survey delivered nine studies related to the future condition of the polar bear and its habitat. Satellite images depict the differences in sea ice from the fall of 1979 to the fall of 2007. (Studies and models at http://www.doi.gov/issues/polar_bears.html). Last year, Arctic sea ice fell to the lowest level ever recorded by satellite, 39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000. The amount of sea ice loss in years 2002-2007 exceeded all previous record lows.

For the studies, USGS relied on 10 peer-reviewed climate models, all of which project a decline in Arctic sea ice in the future.Based on actual observations of trends in sea ice over the past three decades, these models may actually understate the extent and change rate of projected sea ice loss.

Kempthorne said he was using the authority provided in Section 4(d) of the ESA to develop a rule that states that if an activity is permissible under the stricter standards imposed by the marine Mammal Protection Act, it is also permissible under the Endangered Species Act with respect to the polar bear. This rule, effective immediately, will ensure the protection of the bear while allowing natural resource development in the arctic region in an environmentally sound way. The conservation measures provide that the production, interstate sale, and export of native handicrafts by Alaska natives may continue and that the subsistence harvest of polar bears is not affected.

Canada has not listed polar bears as threatened even though they have two-thirds of the world's population of the species, however, Kempthorne signed a memorandum of understanding with John Baird, the minister of environment, for the conservation and management of polar bear populations shared by the United States and Canada.

Kempthorne promised to take the following actions:

• The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will issue guidance to staff that the best scientific data available today cannot make a causal connection between harm to listed species or their habitats and greenhouse gas emissions from a specific facility, or resource development project or government action.

• The Department of the Interior will propose common-sense modifications to ESA regulatory language to prevent abuse of this listing to erect a back-door climate policy outside the normal system of political accountability.

• The department will continue to monitor polar bear populations and trends, study polar bear feeding ecology, work cooperatively with the Alaska Nanuuq Commission and the North Slope Borough for co-management of the polar bears in Alaska, provide technical assistance to the participants of the 1988 North Slope Borough Inuvialuit Game Council Agreement for the conservation of polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea region, and monitor the effects of oil and gas operations in the Beaufort Sea region.

The proposed ESA special 4(d) rule is available at (http://www.doi.gov/issues/polar_bears.html) for a 60 day public comment period.

The World Wildlife Fund, which supported the polar bear listing, said that sound science triumphed over politics, but that the delay in making the decision allowed the Mineral Management Service in February to auction off almost 30 million acres of prime polar bear habitat in Alaska's Chukchi Sea for oil and gas exploration.

The Fish & Wildlife Service recommended the listing in September 2006, which required a formal decision from the Department of the Interior by Jan. 9, 2008. The department did not make a decision at that time. On April 28, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the department to make a decision by May 15.

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