Endangered status might not help polar bears, official says

WASHINGTON — Even if polar bears are listed as threatened, the Endangered Species Act may not be the proper vehicle to slow global warming or, especially, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday.

Dale Hall said the use of the act would trigger regulatory processes that would do nothing to slow the loss of the polar bears' habitat due to global warming.

"The polar bear should not be the focus," Hall said after he testified at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing. "The focus should be global climate change and global warming, and how we address aspects of that, and that is, greenhouse gas emissions. As a world community we need to be doing that, and in the United States, we need to be doing that."

The Fish and Wildlife Service is just days away from deciding whether to list polar bears as endangered, a classification that would make the bears a photogenic worldwide symbol of the effects of climate change.

The agency was scheduled to issue a decision at the beginning of this month but postponed it because its scientists needed more time to analyze studies from the U.S. Geological Survey. Those projections show that as many as two-thirds of the world population of the bears could disappear by midcentury as their sea ice habitat melts. That would leave a small population of polar bears in the Canadian Arctic.

If polar bears are listed as endangered, they'll be the first species that's on the list because global warming threatens its habitat.

Hall said Wednesday that he had concerns about using the Endangered Species Act to address what threatened the polar bear's habitat the most: rising global temperatures.

"You can use the polar bear as an educational tool on this," Hall said. "But climate change is a bit bigger than that. Those kind of symbolic relationships are good, but we must first make sure that the law is followed and that if a species is on the list, it deserves to be on the list. This is an issue that's much larger than just a listing on the endangered species list."

Those concerns were shared by Richard Glenn, a geologist who sits on the board of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, which unites visiting researchers with native experts in Alaska's northernmost city. But Glenn told the committee Wednesday that he was in Washington as a Inupiaq resident of Alaska's Arctic, not as a scientist.

A listing as a threatened species would "do little to aid the polar bears' existence," Glenn said. Instead, a listing would classify Inupiaq communities as being in critical habitat zones, he said, creating bureaucratic havoc in remote Arctic villages and limiting the small amount of development they might do.

"While America sleeps better at night, falsely believing they have assisted this iconic species, they will still fly planes, drive cars and power their homes," Glenn said.

Environmentalists have complained that delays in the listing decision are tied to pending oil and gas leases in the Chuckchi Sea, prime polar-bear habitat off the northwest coast of Alaska.

Earlier this month, a House of Representatives committee on global warming called on the Interior Department to hold off on auctioning oil and gas leases in the Chuckchi Sea until the Fish and Wildlife Service decides whether to list polar bears as threatened. Those leases, which the Minerals Management Service oversees, are scheduled to go up for bid next Wednesday.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., on Wednesday volunteered staffers from her Environment and Public Works Committee to help Hall finish the paperwork on listing polar bears before the Chuckchi leases are let.

"I view this as a moral issue," Boxer said, "because I think the polar bear is one of God's most magnificent creatures."

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