WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced Wednesday that the agency will list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a decision that could cast the bears as the enduring symbol of the effects of global warming.
But Kempthorne also warned that the listing "will not stop global climate change or prevent sea ice from melting" and that he will not permit the Endangered Species Act to be used as a tool for changing U.S. policy on global warming or greenhouse gas emissions. He pledged that the listing would not "set backdoor climate policy."
"Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears," Kempthorne said. "But it should not open the door to use the ESA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants, and other sources. That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the ESA."
Kempthorne's decision, forced by federal courts, is his first Endangered Species Act listing since joining President Bush's Cabinet in 2006. Conservation groups petitioned the agency in 2005 for the designation, the first for an animal that's losing its habitat to global warming. Polar bears use sea ice as a platform to trap their primary prey, seals.
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In his announcement, Kempthorne showed satellite images of the retreating polar ice over an 18-year period and said government scientists have predicted that global warming will continue to melt the bears' sea ice habitat at an alarming rate.
Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey predicted in September that only a small population of the existing 25,000 of the world's polar bears would remain in the islands of the Canadian Arctic by mid-century. The study, done as part of the assessment for listing the bears, found that two-thirds of the world's polar bears will have disappeared, mostly along the coasts of Alaska and Russia. About one-fifth of the bears live in Alaska and nearby on the coast of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
But Kempthorne said that there is simply no scientific way to connect specific greenhouse gas emissions from specific smokestacks to the harm of a species or its habitat.
Kempthorne on Wednesday had the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issue a memo that says the existing science doesn't make such a connection. As a result, when new power plants and other emitters of greenhouse gases seek permission to operate, the Fish and Wildlife Service can't use the polar bear listing as a reason to deny a permit.
The Interior Department also issued a rule Wednesday saying that if oil and gas development is allowed under the standards of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it would be allowed under the Endangered Species Act.
"This rule, effective immediately, will ensure the protection of the bear while allowing us to continue to develop our natural resources in the arctic region in an environmentally sound way," Kempthorne said.
Those reassurances were not enough for many Alaskans, however. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said that she was disappointed in the ruling and remains concerned that federal actions will "threaten the viable, productive and environmentally responsible oil and gas industry along Alaska's North Slope."
Palin also said the state will "continue balancing responsible development of our nonrenewable resources while we're protecting that magnificent species of wildlife. We will work with this decision."
Environmentalists also had conflicting feelings about the ruling. The listing is a "watershed event because it has forced the Bush administration to acknowledge global warming's brutal impacts," said Kassie Siegel, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity and author of the 2005 petition to list polar bears.
But Siegel also called the administration's failure to connect the polar bear from greenhouse gas emissions "illegal" and said she didn't think it would hold up in court.
"It's not too late to save the polar bear, and we'll keep fighting to ensure that the polar bear gets the help it needs through the full protections of the Endangered Species Act," she said.
Kempthorne, a former U.S. senator and Idaho governor, has long been a critic of the Endangered Species Act. On Wednesday, he said that he was compelled to make the listing decision because he believed the agency's own research shows that global warming is melting the bears' polar habitat. His decision was a reluctant one, though, and he repeatedly criticized the Endangered Species Act for its emphasis on listing, rather than on developing management plans.
In fact, the agency had to be prodded by courts to consider listing polar bears. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began studying a possible listing in December 2006. When the Interior Department failed to make a decision by a January 2008 deadline, a federal court in California ordered a decision by Thursday.