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article imageCritics Say Oil Interests Delaying Polar Bear Endangered Species Ruling

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By Chris Hogg     Jan 9, 2008 in Environment
The Bush administration has announced it will miss a legal deadline put in place to determine if polar bears should be listed under the Endangered Species Act, and critics are roaring in anger. Some say an oil contract is the real reason for the delay.
Digital Journal -- Under U.S. federal law, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was to decide once and for all what legal protections would be put in place for polar bears.
The USFWS was looking at whether global warming threatens polar bears and if they should be listed as an endangered species. It's deadline to make a decision was today, but Dale Hall, director of the USFWS told reporters the group needs more time to go over data and that it could take as much as a month longer to do that. Hall said the department has never declared an animal endangered because of climate change, and the issue has "complicated the decision."
The debate zeros in on the issue of whether polar bears' existence will be threatened by melting ice as a result of a warming climate.
Greenpeace says the Endangered Species Act requires a species to be listed in a process taking no longer than two years. They say this time around, it's taken almost three. Greenpeace sued the Bush administration in December 2005 when it missed the first deadline, and the government responded in February 2006 when the USFWS said protecting polar bears "may be warranted."
In 2006, the USFWS commissioned the United States Geological Survey to make recommendations. In September 2007, they responded , saying "...the team documented the direct relationship between the presence of Arctic sea ice and the survival and health of polar bears." They also reported "Polar bears depend on sea ice as a platform to hunt seals, their primary food. But sea ice is decreasing throughout their Arctic range due to climate change. Models used by the USGS team project a 42 per cent loss of optimal polar bear habitat from the Polar Basin during summer, a vital hunting and breeding period, by mid-century."
The report concluded melting sea ice in the Arctic could reduce the polar bear population by two-thirds, and eventual extinction in 75 years.
Environmental groups are up in arms, demanding a decision and threatening legal action if one is not made. A news release posted on Greenpeace's site says the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) will begin legal action today with a formal notice to sue as required by the Endangered Species Act.
"The Bush administration has squandered seven years denying the devastating scientific evidence of global warming," said Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace USA in the release. "Stalling has cost us dearly, putting the polar bear at risk of extinction and jeopardizing the future welfare of billions of people around the world. This further unjustified delay is emblematic of the administration's approach."
Some environmental groups even say the administration's political meddling is propelled by a rush to sell oil leases in the Arctic. They say a decision was purposefully delayed so a first-time oil lease sale can go go through on Feb. 6 in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska. This area provides one-tenth of the habitat for the world's polar bears.
The chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), issued a statement where he criticized the administration for its lease of 29 million acres in the Chukchi. As SFGate.com reports: "On the one hand, the Interior Department is dragging its feet on protecting the polar bear, while opening up new oil and gas drilling in sensitive polar bear habitats on the other." Markey said in a statement.
As Greenpeace reports, an endangered species listing would mean the federal government would 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be required to prepare a recovery plan for the polar bear, specifying measures necessary for its protection."
The Natural Resources Defense Council reportedly said a declaration of endangered species for the polar bear would also mean the lease-sale of land in the Chukchi would have to be stopped or delayed.
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