On Thursday, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Obama administration’s request to list the polar bear as merely threatened, not endangered, under the Endangered Species Act.
The decision was disappointing to both environmental groups who wanted the extra protections an endangered classification would afford, as well as industry interest who wanted the polar bear removed from the list altogether.
In his 116-page opinion (pdf), U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan of the District of Columbia wrote that he was “persuaded that the listing rule survives this highly deferential standard” and that the plaintiffs challenging the listing “have failed to demonstrate that the agency’s listing determination rises to the level of irrationality.”
Sullivan nevertheless made it clear in his opinion that he had some sympathy for environmental groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, which had argued that the science on global warming could have supported a finding that the bear was endangered.
“Certainly, where global warming has been identified as the primary threat to the polar bear’s sea ice habitat and the agency has acknowledged that the global warming trend is unlikely to reverse itself, a conclusion that the species is … ‘in danger of extinction’ has undeniable appeal,” Sullivan wrote in a footnote.
The issue of polar bear protections is complicated by many political factors, including the effects of human-induced climate change and the petroleum industry’s desire to conduct offshore drilling operations in the delicate Beaufort and Chukchi seas. So far, these operations have been put on hold because there is currently no technology available to clean up a catastrophic oil spill in the icy Alaskan waters.
According to Polar Bear International (PBI), “scientists have concluded that the threat to polar bears is ecological change in the Arctic from global warming. Polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting, breeding, and in some cases, denning. Summer ice loss in the Arctic now equals an area the size of Alaska, Texas, and the state of Washington combined.”
Unfortunately, the decision to list the polar bear as threatened rather than endangered was one that Obama inherited from the Bush administration, including a strategic caveat which prevents any interpretation of the bears’ threatened status to trigger climate change pollution regulation.
Earthjustice reports that the Obama administration is poised to make decisions in the coming months that threaten long-lasting and irreparable damage to the Arctic. It will decide whether to let stand Bush-era oil leases covering millions of acres in the Chukchi Sea. And it will decide whether to allow Shell Oil Co., the world’s second largest corporation, to embark on an aggressive oil drilling plan in Arctic seas starting in 2012.
Source: NY Times