Polar Bears Listed as Threatened Species in U.S.

May 14, 2008

After delaying a decision for several weeks, the U.S. government today listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), creating new protections for the bears in their Alaskan habitat. (Watch video.)

But officials emphasized that the decision will not be used to determine U.S. climate policy.

At today's announcement, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne noted the dramatic decline of Arctic sea ice as the greatest threat to the bears.

Polar bears live in the Arctic and hunt seals and other fatty marine mammals from sea ice. They also travel, mate, and sometimes give birth on the ice.

But sea ice is melting as the planet warms, and it is predicted to continue to do so for several more decades. (Related: "Shrinking Arctic Sea Ice Thinner, More Vulnerable" [March 18, 2008].)

"Because polar bears are vulnerable to this loss of habitat, they are—in my judgment—likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future," Kempthorne said during a press briefing.

Many scientists say human-induced global warming is directly responsible for the melting sea ice and have called for limits on greenhouse gas emissions to stem the loss.

But Kempthorne said that science is not yet able to link specific activities such as carbon dioxide emissions from a coal-fired power plant to impacts on individual polar bears.

Therefore, regulation of greenhouse gases from power plants, automobiles, and other sources is out of the scope of this legislation, he said.

"That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the Endangered Species Act," he said. "ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy."

Mixed Reactions

As part of the announcement, Kempthorne invoked a section of the Endangered Species Act that stipulates activities permissible under the Marine Mammal Protection Act are allowed to continue under the ESA.

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