White House Lists Polar Bears as 'Threatened'
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
NOAH ADAMS, host:
And I'm Noah Adams.
The Bush administration has agreed to add the polar bear to the list of plants and animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. That law requires the preservation of the bears' habitat. But, in this case, that may not be an easy thing to do. The biggest threat to polar bears is melting sea ice linked to global warming.
And as NPR's John Nielsen reports, today's listing comes with a caveat.
JOHN NIELSEN: Interior secretaries don't often hold press conferences to announce endangered species listings, but that's what Dirk Kempthorne did today when he officially declared the polar bear a threatened species. Kempthorne said he made the call for three main reasons. First, he said, Arctic sea ice is essential to the polar bears' survival.
Secretary DIRK KEMPTHORNE (U. S. Interior Department): Second, the polar bears sea ice habitat has dramatically melted in recent decades. Third, computer models suggest sea ice is likely to further recede in the future.
NIELSEN: Kempthorne said he'd been convinced that melting sea ice forecast issued by computer models were both accurate and scary. But, he didn't seem to have much faith in the idea that global warming was behind the melting trend, and he said environmentalists shouldn't plan to use the Endangered Species Act or ESA to force government action on climate change.
Sec. KEMPTHORNE: Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears, but it should not open the door to use the ESA to regulate green house gas emissions from automobiles, power plants and other sources. That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the Endangered Species Act. ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy.
NIELSEN: Kempthorne says that's why he added some unprecedented language to the polar bear listing; it essentially tries to limit the listing's impact on the energy industry. John Kostyack, a climate change expert at the National Wildlife Federation, called it an attempt to run away from the obvious implications of the listing.
Mr. JOHN KOSTYACK (Senior Counsel, National Wildlife Federation): If you are a coal plant dodging global warming pollution, you are contributing to the extinction of the polar bear. He's not willing to say that. And so he said, we're going to put out a rule that details every contributor to global warming pollution that we can't make any causal connection to your activity in the loss of sea ice, which is scientifically incorrect. We will never stand the test of time.
NIELSEN: Kostyack says environmentalists will almost certainly sue to get this language stricken. That could send the fight over how to protect these species back into court for a long time.
Fortunately, there are at least 20,000 polar bears in the world right now, and in recent years, that number has been rising. But polar bear experts say those trend lines may start changing soon. Recent studies in places like Canada's Hudson Bay appear to show that the bears are getting smaller, eating less and dying younger. In other words, these bears may be starting their decline.
John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.
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