OAKLAND, Calif.(April 29, 2008) -- A federal judge has found the Bush administration guilty of violating the Endangered Species Act and ordered the administration to issue a final listing decision for the polar bear by May 15, 2008. The polar bear, suffering as its Arctic sea ice habitat melts far faster than forecast, is one of the world’s most imperiled animals due to global warming.
The Hon. Claudia Wilkin ruled for the plaintiffs -- Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace -- on all issues in finding that the Bush administration has violated the law by missing the deadline for a final polar bear decision by nearly four months. The court order, issued Monday evening, requires the administration to publish a final decision in the Federal Register by May 15, 2008, and for the decision to take effect immediately. This decision is the result of a petition by the groups, initially submitted in 2005, to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act.
“Today's decision is a huge victory for the polar bear,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the 2005 petition seeking the Endangered Species Act listing. “By May 15th the polar bear should receive the protections it deserves under the Endangered Species Act, which is the first step toward saving the polar bear and the entire Arctic ecosystem from global warming.”
The Interior Department had requested an additional delay, until June 30, 2008, for its lawyers to finish reviewing and revising the decision. The Court disallowed further delay, stating: “Defendants offer no specific facts that would justify the existing delay, much less further delay. To allow Defendants more time would violate the mandated listing deadlines under the ESA and congressional intent that time is of the essence in listing threatened species.”
“The federal court has thrown this incredible animal a lifeline,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC's Endangered Species Project. “The Endangered Species Act requires the decision to be based solely on science, and the science is absolutely unambiguous that the polar bear deserves protection.”
Judge Wilkin also ordered that the listing decision take effect immediately, forgoing a 30-day waiting period that applies unless circumstances warrant faster action. In rejecting the administration's claim that the polar bear will not be harmed in the absence of Endangered Species Act protection, the judge pointed to a pending proposal to permit oil industry operations in the Chukchi Sea, and stated: “Defendants fail to show that the thirty-day waiting period will not pose a threat to the polar bear.”
“We have won in the court of public opinion and of law,” said Melanie Duchin, Greenpeace global warming campaigner in Alaska. “We hope that this decision marks the end of the Bush administration's delays and denial so that immediate action may be taken to protect polar bears from extinction.”
Polar bears live only in the Arctic and are totally dependent on the sea ice for all of their essential needs. The rapid warming of the Arctic and melting of the sea ice pose an overwhelming threat to the polar bear, already suffering starvation, drowning, and population declines as its sea-ice habitat melts away.
Since the petition to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act was first filed, new science paints a dim picture of the polar bear's future. In September, the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that two-thirds of the world's polar bear population would likely be extinct by 2050, including all polar bears within the United States. Several leading scientists now predict the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer as early as 2012.
Listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act guarantees federal agencies will be obligated to ensure that any action they authorize, fund, or carry out will not jeopardize the polar bears' continued existence or adversely modify their critical habitat, and the Fish and Wildlife Service will be required to prepare a recovery plan for the polar bear, specifying measures necessary for its protection.
In December 2005, the groups sued the Bush administration for failing to respond to the original petition. In February of 2006, as a result of that first lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that protection of polar bears “may be warranted” and commenced a full status review of the species. A settlement agreement in that case committed the Service to make the second of three required findings in the listing process by December 27, 2006, at which time the Service announced the proposal to list the species as threatened. The proposed listing rule was published in the Federal Register on January 9, 2007. By law, the Service was required to make a final listing decision within one year of the proposal. The Service ignored the January 9, 2008 statutory deadline for making a final decision, prompting the current lawsuit.