The US government has declared the polar bear a threatened species because of the loss of Arctic sea ice but also cautioned the decision should not be viewed as a path to address global warming.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne cited dramatic declines in sea ice over the last three decades and projections of continued losses, meaning, he said, that the polar bear is a species likely to be in danger of extinction in the near future.
However, Mr Kempthorne said it would be “wholly inappropriate” to use the protection of the bear to reduce greenhouse gases, or to broadly address climate change.
The Endangered Species Act “is not the right tool to set US climate policy,” said Mr Kempthorne, reflecting a view recently expressed by President George Bush.
The department outlined a set of administrative actions and limits to how it planned to protect the bear with its new status so that it would not have a wide-ranging adverse impact on economic activities from building power plants to oil and gas exploration.
“This listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting,” said Mr Kempthorne. He said he had consulted the White House on the decision, but “at no time was there ever a suggestion that this was not my decision”.
Mr Kempthorne, at a news conference, was armed with slides and charts showing the dramatic decline in sea ice over the last 30 years and projections that the melting of ice – a key habitat for the bear – would continue and may even quicken.
He cited conclusions by department scientists that sea ice loss will likely result in two-thirds of the polar bears disappearing by mid-century. The bear population across the Arctic from Alaska to Greenland doubled from about 12,000 to 25,000 since 1960, but he noted that scientists now predict a significant population decline. Studies last year by the US Geological Survey suggested 15,000 bears would be lost in coming decades with those in the western Hudson Bay area of Alaska and Canada under the greatest stress.
However, when asked how the bear will be afforded greater protection, Dale Hall, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, had difficulty coming up with examples.
Better management of bear habitat on shore and making sure bears are not threatened by people including hunters, more studies on bear population trends and their feeding habits were among the areas mentioned. “I don’t want to prejudge recommendations for (bear) management,” said Mr Hall whose agency administers the Endangered Species Act.
Environmentalists were already mapping out plans to file lawsuits challenging the restrictive measures outlined by Mr Kempthorne.
“They’re trying to make this a threatened listing in name only with no change in today’s impacts and that’s not going to fly,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark of Defenders of Wildlife and a former US Fish and Wildlife Service director.
Members of Congress also were sceptical.
The Bush administration “is forcing the polar bear to sink or swim”, said Rep Edward Markey, D-Mass, chairman of a House committee on global warming.
Democratic Senator John Kerry called it “a lifeline for our last remaining polar bears” but said the bear’s survival will not be assured without limits on oil development in the same Arctic waters where the bears are found.
Despite the new listing, the announcement underscores the need to approve climate legislation that would limit the release of greenhouse gases and avert the future effects on climate change, said Senator Barbara Boxer, the Democratic chairwoman of the Environment Committee.
“It remains to be seen how much this belated listing decision will improve protection for polar bears and their rapidly shrinking habitat,” said Clayton Jernigan, an attorney for Earthjustice. He said the Interior’s announcement made clear steps would be taken to avoid interfering with offshore oil development in waters where bears and oil drilling are expected to coexist.
Mr Kempthorne proposed 15 months ago to investigate whether the polar bear should be declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
That triggered a year of studies into the threats facing the bear and its survival prospects at a time when scientists predict a continuing warming and loss of Arctic sea ice. The Arctic sea ice serves as a primary habitat for the bear and is critical to its survival, scientists say.
A species is declared “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act if it is found to be at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future. If it does not make progress toward recovery, it can be declared “endangered” meaning it is at risk of extinction and needs even greater protection.