Empire editorial: Stop procrastinating on polar bear issue

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2008

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's announcement this week that it would miss the deadline for a recommendation on whether to list polar bears as a threatened species was a disappointing development in an issue that has dragged on long enough.

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Rather than address the realities of climate change, the Bush administration appears happy to ignore the issue until it's forced to act.

It has taken three years and one lawsuit for the original petition protecting polar bears to get as far as it has. And it looks like one more lawsuit will be needed to ensure that a recommendation reaches the desk of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

A request to protect the marine mammals was first filed in February 2005, and it wasn't until the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace sued 10 months later that the Fish and Wildlife Service took any action. In February 2006, the agency said the protection of polar bears "may be warranted," triggering a full review of the species and a January 2007 proposal to list the species as threatened.

The agency should have made a decision Wednesday, but the Fish and Wildlife Service said it needed more time. Why?

The agency said the issue was too complex and it has never declared a species threatened or endangered because of climate change. Agency Director Dale Hall said the research effort has been "taxing and challenging."

The truth is the research is in. Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration independently determined that enough sea ice will have been lost by 2050 to slash the numbers of polar bears in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast. The same is likely for the East Siberian-Chukchi Sea region between Alaska and Russia.

Sea ice is essential for the survival of polar bears because they use sea ice as a platform when hunting their primary food source - seals. The USGS estimates that in the next 50 years that polar bears will lose 42 percent of the Arctic range they need to live during the summer.

Last summer also set a record low for Arctic sea ice with just 1.65 million square miles, according to researchers with the University of Colorado.

Alaska's leading politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and Gov. Sarah Palin, fear that listing polar bears as a threatened species will cripple any and all resource development in the state. They are especially worried any special protections will derail development of a natural gas pipeline.

The development of this pipeline is key to the state because of the tremendous boost it will give the economy. But we also would like to see environmentally responsible development. Listing polar bears as a species likely to become endangered may present challenges to certain projects, but a threatened designation won't be the death knell of development that our state politicians fear.

Our political leaders would like to downplay the role of human activities in climate change, but the scientific consensus is we do play a role. Our state is already seeing the effects of climate change. We should not fear an Endangered Species Act designation that is based on climate change.

The Bush administration should stop wasting time on this issue and make a decision soon; the evidence is in already.

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