Ruling Offers Polar Bears New Opportunity for Full Protection

Court Directs Government to Clarify its Rationale for Rejecting "Endangered" Status for the Polar Bear

WASHINGTON, DC (November 4, 2010) -- A federal judge today ordered the Department of the Interior to reconsider its 2008 decision not to provide polar bears the most complete protection possible under the Endangered Species Act.  The ruling came in response to a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace seeking additional protection for the polar bear, which is under severe threat from global warming.

In response to a petition from the three conservation groups, the Bush administration in 2008 classified the polar bear as “threatened” -- rather than the more protective “endangered” -- under the Endangered Species Act. The administration also issued a special rule exempting greenhouse gases -- the primary threat to the species -- from regulation under the Act. Such a rule can only be issued for a species listed as threatened, not endangered. The groups sued, arguing that the polar bear should be listed as “endangered,” not merely “threatened.”  The Department of the Interior had argued that even though the polar bear will likely be extinct in most of its range by mid-century, it was not endangered because its extinction was not “imminent.”  In his ruling issued today, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan rejected the Department’s argument that the text of the Endangered Species Act clearly states that extinction must be “imminent” before a species can be listed as “endangered” and ordered the Interior Department to reconsider its definition of “endangered” as it applies to the polar bear. 

“The judge has put the ball squarely in Obama’s court,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center’s Climate Law Institute and lead author of the 2005 petition to federally protect the polar bear. “Whether or not the polar bear receives the protections it is legally entitled to and so desperately needs, is now wholly Obama’s decision. We hope that rather than continue to defend the flawed policies of the Bush administration, Obama will do right by the polar bear.”

“We are convinced that any reasonable definition of ‘endangered species’ includes the polar bear,” said Andrew Wetzler, Director of NRDC’s Land &Wildlife Program. “Climate change is an oncoming train and the bears are tied to the tracks. If nobody is around to undo the knots, it doesn’t matter how fast the train is moving -- they are in trouble.”

"Protecting the polar bear's home is the same as protecting us all from the dangers of climate change," said Dan Howells, Deputy Campaign Director of Greenpeace. "And the best way to do that is to acknowledge the danger of climate change and act on it. The Obama administration can take a step in this direction by giving the bears the protection they deserve."

Global warming, which is affecting the Arctic far faster and more intensely than the rest of the world, is melting the sea ice that polar bears depend on for survival. The ice is vital for hunting seals, breeding, long-distance travel and, in some cases, building dens to rear cubs. The loss of sea ice has already led to starvation, drowning and population declines of polar bears. If current greenhouse gas pollution trends continue, scientists predict that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will be lost by 2050, including all of Alaska’s bears, while the rest will near extinction by the end of the century.

Judge Sullivan ordered the Interior Department to reconsider its decision in light of the ruling and file a response by December 23, 2010, and he set a hearing date of February 23, 2011 to consider that response and the rest of the claims in the listing case.