OAKLAND, Calif.— The Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace have reached a partial settlement with the federal government of the conservation groups’ lawsuit that seeks to strengthen protections for the polar bear under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and other laws. The agreement, filed today in federal court, sets deadlines for the Secretary of Interior to designate “critical habitat” for the polar bear, as well as to issue guidelines on non-lethal strategies to deal with bears that pose a threat to public safety under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.
“If polar bears are to survive in a rapidly melting Arctic, we must protect their critical habitat, as well as protect individual bears stranded on land. This agreement sets us on the path to doing both,” 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.
Under the Endangered Species Act, critical habitat is supposed to be designated at the same time a species is listed as threatened or endangered. Once designated, federal agencies are prohibited from taking any actions that may “adversely modify” critical habitat in a way that could interfere with the species’ recovery. Species for which critical habitat has been designated have been found to be more than twice as likely to recover, and less than half as likely to decline, than those without. Today’s agreement sets a deadline of June 30, 2010 for a final rule designating critical habitat for the polar bear. A proposed critical habitat rule will be issued next year, and will be subject to public comment and public hearings.
“The designation of critical habitat is one of the most powerful and important protections that the Endangered Species Act offers to animals and plants on the brink of extinction,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of Natural Resource Defense Council's Endangered Species Project. “Designation of critical habitat for the polar bear is an essential step towards saving this increasingly imperiled species.”
Today’s settlement also resolves the conservation groups’ claim that the Secretary of Interior violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act by failing to issue guidelines for the non-lethal deterrence of polar bears that pose a threat to public safety. The agreement requires the Secretary to finalize such guidelines by March 31, 2010. As with the critical habitat rule, the guidelines will be preceded by a proposed rule next year, along with public comment and public hearings.
“As the ice retreats further from shore and more polar bears are stranded on land, the number of human/bear interactions is increasing. We need guidelines that protect both people and bears,” said Melanie Duchin, Greenpeace global warming campaigner in Alaska.
The settlement does not address the conservation groups’ claims that the Secretary of Interior violated the Endangered Species Act by listing the polar bear as “threatened” rather than “endangered” and by issuing a special rule exempting the bear from many of the protections otherwise provided by the Act. That case is continuing and will be heard early next year in federal district court in Oakland, Calif. In addition to the conservation groups’ lawsuit seeking additional protection for the polar bear, five separate lawsuits have been filed in Washington, D.C., by the State of Alaska and various industry groups seeking to overturn protections for the species.