No thaw in polar bear policy

Obama administration leaves Bush-era protection limits intact

The Associated PressMay 9, 2009 

  • The iconic polar bear -- about 25,000 of the mammals can be found across the Arctic region from Alaska to Greenland -- has become a symbol of the potential ravages of climate change. Scientists say although the bear population has more than doubled since the 1960s, as many as 15,000 could be lost in the coming decades because of the loss of Arctic sea ice, a key element of their habitat.

— The Obama administration, which promised a sharp break from the Bush White House on global warming, declared Friday that it would stick with a Bush-era policy against expanding protection for climate-threatened polar bears. The decision rules out a broad new attack on greenhouse gases.

To the dismay of environmentalists, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar refused to rescind a Bush administration rule that says actions that threaten the polar bear's survival cannot be considered when safeguarding the iconic mammal if they occur outside the bear's Arctic home.

The rule was aimed at heading off the possibility that the bear's survival could be cited by opponents of power plants and other facilities that produce carbon dioxide, a leading pollutant blamed for global warming.

The Endangered Species Act requires that a threatened or endangered species must have its habitat protected. Environmentalists say that in the case of the polar bear, the biggest threat comes from pollution -- mainly carbon dioxide from faraway power plants, factories and cars -- that is warming the Earth and melting Arctic sea ice.

Salazar agreed that global warming is "the single greatest threat" to the bear's survival but disagreed that the federal law protecting animals, plants and fish should be used to address climate change.

"The Endangered Species Act is not the appropriate tool for us to deal with what is a global issue, and that is the issue of global warming," said Salazar, echoing much the same view as his Republican predecessor, Dirk Kempthorne, who had declared the polar bear in need of protection under the federal species law.

Kempthorne issued the "special rule" that limited the scope of the bear's protection to actions within its Arctic home.

Environmentalists and some members of Congress argue the bear is not being given the full protection required under the species law.

Others, including much of the business community, argue that making the bear a reason for curtailing greenhouse gases thousands of miles away would cause economic chaos.

Reaction to Salazar's decision Friday was sharply divided.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin hailed the decision as a "clear victory for Alaska" because it removes the link between bear protection and climate change and should help North Slope oil and gas development. But environmentalists and some of their leading advocates in Congress were disappointed.

"The polar bear is threatened, and we need to act," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

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