Sunday, December 26, 2010

Polar Bears: good news and bad news in the U.S.

Following up on my December 19th posting regarding polar bears, here's an example of one-step forward, two steps back.

Gaining Ground, Literally
The step forward has to do with the designation in late November of 187,000 sq.miles of northern Alaska wilderness as a "critical habitat" for polar bears. As part of a mandated response to having the polar bear listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the area - although it had to be prodded into action by a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) which has been after the Fish and Wildlife Service to fully implement protections, like the critical habitat, required by the Endangered Species Act.

The critical habitat designation mandates that any federal agency that would wish to open up any of the land for economic activity (as in granting permits for gas and oil exploration, which several oil companies were planning on doing), they would have to first consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service regarding adverse impact against the polar bears.

“This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations,” said Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks in a Fish and Wildlife Service news release. “Nevertheless, the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of its sea ice habitat caused by human-induced climate change. We will continue to work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this iconic species.”

Read about the polar bears' "critical habitat" in BBC News.

Losing Ground
In response to the critical habitat designation, the governor of Alaska has announce his intention to have the state file suit against the federal government. As reported by the Washington Post, Governor Sean Parnell contends the critical habitat designation will delay jobs and increase costs - or even kill - resource development projects that are important to Alaska.

"Once again, we are faced with federal overreach that threatens our collective prosperity," Gov. Parnell said. "We don't intend to let this stand."

A recent newsletter from the CBD reported, "The Center is already in court defending the polar bear against the state's previous suit to have it removed from Endangered Species Act protection, arguing instead that protection should be upgraded. Scientists estimate there's a greater than 80 percent chance that polar bears in Alaska will be extinct by mid-century under current greenhouse gas emissions trends."

"They [the Alaska state government] have opposed every Endangered Species Act listing to date," said CBD attorney Brendan Cummings.

Read more about Alaska's threat of legal action in the Washington Post.

Losing More Ground
The Center for Biological Diversity will be kept busy with the additional setback announced this past Wednesday by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The department filed arguments in court to support its decision to list the polar bear as threatened, as opposed to endangered under the Endangered Species Act - endangered being a designation that many conservation groups have pushed for because it requires the government to address the source of the endangerment (global warming).

Also, the department is maintaining a Bush-era decision to exempt greenhouse gases from regulation under the Endangered Species Act, thereby eliminating from consideration all scientific studies and data that point to climate change as being one of the primary threats to polar bear ice-based habitat.

The CBD plans to counter the department of the Interior's arguments in court in February. CBD attorney Kassie Siegal said, "[The department's action] puts a gloss on a horribly flawed Bush-era decision that is anti-science and serves to greatly undermine the protection of not just the polar bear but all of America's imperiled wildlife."

There are some environmentalists and legal experts that feel that the Endangered Species Act is not the best vehicle for pressing forward with the greenhouse gas issue, that it would best be served in Congress than in the courts. But given the current state of partisan politics and the influence of gas and oil lobbyists, that probably won't be happening any time soon, so groups like the Center for Biological Diversity continue with legal action.

Read more about the Dept. of Interior decision in the Los Angeles Times.

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