A Loss for Polar Bears, a Victory for Seals

Two Arctic species – the two which happen to be the cutest and cuddliest, the poster children for Arctic wildlife conservation movements – have been in the news lately: polar bears and seals. I’ll cover the seal issue in my next post.polarbear

Polar Bears

To the disappointment of environmentalists, the Department of the Interior will uphold the special rule passed under the Bush administration limiting the use of the Endangered Species Act as a means to restrict greenhouse gas emissions – the so-called “polar bear 4(d) rule.” Secretary Ken Salazar qualified his decision by saying that the Department is open to increasing the amount of protected habitat for polar bears.

In May 2008, polar bears were put on the list of threatened species – the first species to be in danger due to global warming. Although the polar bear population has doubled since the 1960s after recovering from losses caused by aerial hunting and now hovers around 25,000, the loss of Arctic sea ice could reduce numbers by 15,000 – a huge step backwards. Some even claim polar bears could go extinct by 2050. Scientists believe that the greatest threat to the species’ existence is global warming, which itself is caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Salazar concurred that global warming is the main threat to polar bears, but observed that “the Endangered Species Act is not the appropriate tool for us to deal with what is a global issue, and that is the issue of global warming.”

By upholding the rule, actions taken outside of the polar bear’s actual habitat will not be considered as putting the species in jeopardy. Therefore, heavy contributors to global warming, such as coal-fired power plants and oil wells, for example, cannot be stopped with the reasoning that they will harm polar bears. A question-and-answer page from the Interior’s website said,

 “It is currently not possible to directly link the emission of greenhouse gases from a specific power plant, etc. to effects on specific bears or bear populations.”

But oddly, other “indirect” pollutants, such as DDT and mercury, are allowed to be used as factors when judging the effect of a factory on a threatened or endangered species.

The Interior had also been worried that if they withdrew the rule, it would lead to “unnecessary confusion among the people of Alaska and regulated industries,” because a final special rule very similar to the current 4(d) rule is about to be put in place. The only difference between the two rules is that while the current interim 4(d) rule bans from consideration actions outside of Alaska, the final rule applies to actions outside of the polar bear’s habitat proper. Indeed, the oil industry and its benefactors were satisfied with the retention of the 4(d) rule. American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard announced, “This decision serves to protect the polar bear while providing greater regulatory certainty not only to the oil and natural gas industry but also to all U.S. manufacturers.” Alaska Governor Sarah Palin declared that the decision was “a clear victory for Alaska.”

Conversely, environmentalists were furious about the Interior’s decision. Noah Greenwald, the biodiversity program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “For Salazar to adopt Bush’s polar bear extinction plan is confirming the worst fears of his tenure as Secretary of the Interior. Secretary Salazar would apparently prefer to please Sarah Palin than to protect polar bears.” Under Governor Palin, the state of Alaska was one of several groups to file a lawsuit against granting protection to polar bears, believing them not to be threatened.

Environmentalists have filed a lawsuit against the Interior for its decision on the 4(d) rule, on top of other lawsuits seeking to raise the status of polar bears from merely threatened to endangered. All six filings have been compiled into one lawsuit at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, for which a conference will be held later this month. 

You can listen to a podcast of Secretary Salazar’s remarks here.

News links

“Interior will keep Bush’s polar bear rule,” New York Times

“The Thin Green Line: Polar Bear Protection,” The San Francisco Chronicle (includes press releases from the NRDC and Greenpeace)

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