SAN FRANCISCO (May 20, 2008) – The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have initiated legal action challenging the Bush administration’s attempt to reduce protections for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. In court papers the groups sought to overturn a “special rule” issued by the Department of the Interior at the same time the polar bear was listed as a “threatened” species. The rule reduces the full protections the polar bear would otherwise receive under the Endangered Species Act. The groups filed the legal papers late Friday, May 16.
The special regulations issued by the administration and generally called a “special rule” or a “4(d) rule” effectively waive many of the protections the polar bear would have received through its listing under the Endangered Species Act. Scientists predicted, and have now documented, the grim impacts to polar bears as the Arctic warms rapidly. In September, the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that, based on polar bear distribution and current global warming projections, two-thirds of the world's polar bear population would likely be extinct by 2050, including all polar bears within the United States.
Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced on May 14 that he was classifying the polar bear as a “threatened species” under the Endangered Species Act, the nation’s strongest and most successful law for the protection of plants and animals on the brink of extinction. At the same time, the administration claimed that the listing would add virtually no new protections for the polar bear and have no bearing on the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.
“The listing of the polar bear is a momentous event that provides immediate and significant protections for the species, but the bear will not survive unless we actually implement the full protections of the law,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the 2005 petition to protect the species. “The Endangered Species Act requires the government to identify and then eliminate threats to a species. The administration’s attempt to create an exemption for greenhouse gas emissions, the primary threat to the polar bear, violates both logic and the law.”
One of the Endangered Species Act’s primary protections is the prohibition against any person, corporation, or other entity “taking” a listed species, which includes killing or otherwise harming it. The special regulations attempt to exempt from regulation both greenhouse gas emissions and activities occurring outside Alaska.
“The back-door regulations weaken polar bear protections and were announced without any public process or the environmental analysis required by law,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Endangered Species Project at NRDC. “We are confident the rules won’t survive court review and that the polar bear will be given the full protection of the Endangered Species Act that it so badly needs.”
The Arctic melt is also outpacing predictions. September 2007 shattered all previous records for sea-ice loss when the Arctic ice cap shrank to a record 1 million square miles — equivalent to six times the size of California — below the average summer sea-ice extent of the past several decades, reaching levels not predicted to occur until mid-century. Scientists already predict this year's sea-ice minimum could shatter the record previously set in 2007. Several leading scientists now predict the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in the summer by 2012.
“While we successfully forced the administration to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, the administration is still undercutting all efforts to implement the law to protect the polar bear,” said Melanie Duchin, global warming campaigner for Greenpeace USA in Alaska. “The administration’s continued attempt to block meaningful progress on global warming is no surprise, but it won’t succeed.”