U.S. Government to Decide on Endangered Species Act Protection for Polar Bears by December 27, 2006
San Francisco, CA (June 28, 2006) -- Conservation groups today announced they have reached a settlement of a lawsuit to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under the settlement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will complete the "12-month" finding on whether polar bears should be listed under the Endangered Species Act by December 27, 2006.
"The scientific community is issuing sharp warnings to address global warming now, or suffer consequences that include the loss of Arctic sea ice and species such as the polar bear" said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity. "We need to immediately protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act, and immediately cut greenhouse gas pollution."
Polar bears live only in the Arctic and are totally dependent on the sea ice for all of their essential needs, including hunting their prey of ice seals. The rapid warming of the Arctic and melting of the sea ice poses an overwhelming threat to polar bears, which could become the first mammal to lose 100 percent of their habitat to global warming.
"These animals need protection now," said Andrew Wetzler of NRDC. "Everything in their lives depends on the ice sheet, and that ice sheet is disappearing at an unprecedented rate. If current pollution levels continue we simply will not recognize the Arctic anymore."
Recent findings have painted a dire picture for the polar bear. Reduced food availability due to global warming has resulted in polar bear cannibalism off the north coast of Alaska and Canada. Scientists with the U.S. Minerals Management Service also documented the drowning of at least four polar bears in September 2004, when the sea ice retreated a record 160 miles off the state's northern coast. The polar bear population in Western Hudson Bay has declined from approximately 1200 bears in 1997, to 1,100 bears in 1995, and then to fewer than 950 bears in 2004 due to ice loss. And in April, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that winter sea ice -- defined as the area with sea ice concentrations of 15 percent or greater-has shrunk in the past year by over 115,000 square miles, an area about the size of the Arizona, reaching a new record low of 5.60 million square miles (14.5 million square kilometers).
Listing under the United States Endangered Species Act will provide broad protection to polar bears, including a requirement that United States federal agencies ensure that any action carried out, authorized, or funded by the United States government will not "jeopardize the continued existence" of polar bears, or adversely modify their critical habitat.
"We have reached a critical point in our history when we must protect the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act," said Melanie Duchin of Greenpeace. "The bears are a symbol of what is at risk for us all. By protecting them now, we may be protecting ourselves in the future."
The United States is the world's largest emitter of the heat trapping pollution that causes global warming, primarily carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks and power plants. The United States has four percent of the world's population but produces about one quarter of the world's greenhouse gas pollution.
The conservation organizations Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC, and Greenpeace sued the Bush Administration in December, 2005, because the government had ignored a Petition to protect the polar bear filed in February, 2005. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed the required first "90-day" finding in February, 2006, found that protection of polar bears "may be warranted," and commenced a full status review of the species. The results of that review, as well as review of public comments received, will form the basis of the important "12-month finding" now due by December 27. At the 12-month finding stage, the Fish and Wildlife Service must determine whether protection of polar bears "is warranted," and if so, issue a proposal to protect the species. The proposal would then undergo peer review and public comment before becoming final.
The first public comment period on polar bear Endangered Species Act listing ended on June 16th. Over 200,000 comments were submitted in support of listing the polar bear, including letters from eminent polar bear experts, climate scientists, and over 35 members of Congress.
The settlement announced today will become a final enforceable Court Order when signed by U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White.
More information regarding polar bears, global warming, and United States climate policy is available online at http://www.savebiogems.org/polar/, http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/species/polarbear/index.html, and http://www.greenpeaceusa.org.