After a three year battle the polar bear has won its place on the government's Endangered Species list. But it's a somewhat hollow victory.
Three non-profits, the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), first sued the Bush administration in 2005 to secure protection for the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. After many hearings, and even more hold ups, the government was compelled by law to make a final decision by January 9, 2008. The government flouted this deadline however, and was subsequently forced to make a decision by May 15 after animal rights activists, again, took the matter to the court.
This delay allowed The Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service (MM to complete the first Chukchi Sea oil lease sale since 1991. A press release posted on the MMS' own website boasted that the sale resulted in "667 bids on 488 blocks -- both record-setting numbers -- on the Outer Continental Shelf," with submitted bids "totaling almost $3.4 billion."
The Chuck Sea lies between Alaska and Siberea and is home to one fifth of the world's polar bear population. "Had the polar bear been listed prior to January 9 as the law required, that lease sale could not have moved forward without some substantial additional review of the impacts to polar bears," said Kassie Siegel, who serves as the climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
"After years of delay, the Bush administration was forced to face the reality that global warming has endangered the polar bear and that the polar bear needs to be placed on the Endangered Species Act," said the Republican Chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Edward J. Markey in a statement to CNN. "But the administration has also simultaneously announced a rule aimed at allowing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic to continue unchecked even in the face of the polar bears' threatened extinction. Essentially, the administration is giving a gift to Big Oil, and short shrift to the polar bear."
It's estimated that there are between 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in total on the planet, but the population is expected to decline to less than 10,000 over the next 50 years. Polar bears are only found in the wild in the Arctic. They spend much of the year on sea ice hunting for seals, which serve as their staple high fat diet. But global warming is taking its toll on the Arctic. The region is warming at a rate that is five times faster than that of the earth as a whole. In September 2007, the Arctic ice cap shrunk to a record low, with an additional 1 million square miles disappearing compared to previous years, meaning the polar bear lost an area of habitat equivalent in size to six times that of California.
Despite the fact that polar bears (and the planet) are on such thin ice, the government has its eye firmly on the gas pump, and is far more concerned about the interests of big business. While adding the majestic creatures to the endangered species list, the Secretary of the Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, cautioned that the Environmental Protection Act should not be "misused" to regulate global warming.
"Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears. But it should not open the door to use of the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants, and other sources," said Kempthorne. "That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the ESA law. The ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy."
Fortunately for the polar bear, the Bush government will soon be extinct. With even John McCain making environmentally constructive comments in recent days, lets hope they can hold out for a wind of change.