Court Upholds Endangered Species Act Protection for Polar Bears

A federal judge upheld a May 2008 decision that polar bears throughout their range should be protected as a “threatened” species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The listing was the result of a 2005 petition and litigation filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace. The polar bear was the first species added to the Endangered Species List due solely to the threat from global warming.  

In today’s decision, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan dismissed challenges by the state of Alaska and others seeking to strip the polar bear of its protection. Sullivan ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to protect the bear due to the melting of the Arctic sea ice was well supported. The Center, NRDC and Greenpeace had intervened as defendants in the case to support maintaining protections for the bear.

The Center, NRDC and Greenpeace had also challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to grant the polar bear the most protective designation possible: a listing as “endangered.” Scientific studies show that, due to the rapid melting of its Arctic habitat, two-thirds of the world’s bears, including all the bears in Alaska, are overwhelmingly likely to be extinct within the next 40 years. Despite finding the evidence of the severity of the polar bear’s plight “troubling,” the court found that the Service’s decision to list the bear as threatened, rather than endangered, based on the evidence available in May 2008, did not “rise to the level of irrationality” and thus upheld the threatened status on these grounds as well.

"This decision is an important affirmation that the science demonstrating that global warming is pushing the polar bear toward extinction simply cannot be denied,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute.  “While we are disappointed that the polar bear will not receive the more protective endangered status it deserves, maintaining Endangered Species Act listing for the polar bear is a critical part of giving this species back its future.” 

“Polar bears retaining their protections is key — this was a big loss for the climate deniers who find the bears’ plight inconvenient,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC’s land and wildlife program. “Sure, stronger protections are in order, but today’s court decision confirms that polar bears are on a collision course with global warming. Now that the courts make clear the danger, we need to act quickly to address the looming issue that imperils a lot more than these bears.”

“The court’s decision is bittersweet — it acknowledges the devastating impact of global warming on polar bears, but fails to provide the species with the level of protection it needs to survive into the next century. Greenpeace is pleased that some level of protection will be continued, and we will redouble our efforts to protect the polar bear's Arctic Ocean habitat,” said Melanie Duchin, Greenpeace Arctic campaigner.

The primary regulatory distinction between the threatened and endangered categories is that, if a species is considered threatened, the Service can issue special rules reducing its protections. For the polar bear, the Bush administration issued a special rule that exempted greenhouse gas emissions, pesticides, mercury and other pollutants that harm the bear from the reach of the Endangered Species Act. The conservation groups’ challenge to that rule is still pending in court.

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