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California conservative group argues polar bears are not in danger
Sacramento Bee


May 08, 2008

A California law firm known for its conservative advocacy is poised to join the political melee over the fate of the polar bear, vowing to sue the government if it cites global warming as a threat to the species.

The Pacific Legal Foundation's warning comes in response to a much-anticipated decision next week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether to protect Alaskan polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. The service faces a court-ordered deadline of May 15 for that ruling.

At issue is growing debate over how aggressively government should act to protect wildlife threatened by climate change. In the case of the polar bear, neither side disputes that the Arctic is changing. But they disagree about the effect on polar bears.

Reed Hopper, a foundation attorney, claimed polar bears are thriving and already adequately protected.

"This listing of the polar bear really isn't about the polar bear," he said. "This is a political ploy on the part of activist groups to try to hijack global warming policy from the hands of Congress and to put it into the hands of the courts."

Kassie Siegel, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said it is "untrue and reprehensible" to claim that polar bears are thriving.

Siegel's group first petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect Alaskan polar bears under the Endangered Species Act in February 2005.

After some delays, the agency published an initial ruling in January 2007 that the species should be classified as "threatened." This was based on observed and projected loss of sea ice in the Arctic, and the absence of any regulations to control this threat.

Sea ice is habitat for polar bears. They use it as a platform to hunt seals, for transportation and for resting. Without it, biologists believe, the bears will go extinct.

The past few years have seen a surprisingly rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic, particularly along the Alaskan shore. Climatologists call this one of the more dramatic illustrations of the ongoing effects of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

After more delays, the wildlife service missed a 12-month deadline to finalize its polar bear ruling, and Siegel's group sued. A federal judge in Oakland ruled April 28 that the delays violated the law, and ordered a decision by May 15, one week from today.

Siegel denied Hopper's charge that activists aim to move greenhouse gas regulation into the courts. But they do want to see emissions regulated, she said.

"For the polar bear, the primary overwhelming threat is global warming," Siegel said. "What we're saying is that federal agencies, when they are approving major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, also need to look at the cumulative impact of those emissions on the polar bear when it's listed, and they need to take steps to reduce those emissions."

Siegel acknowledged the bears have rebounded since the 1960s, when unregulated hunting largely ended. But the population is waning again because of climate change, she said.

A similar issue was decided last month when the California Fish and Game Commission rejected a petition to protect the American pika in response to threats posed by climate change. Lots of evidence shows that the pika's high Sierra habitat will shrink as temperatures warm. But a decline in the pika's numbers has not yet been documented in California as a result.

Researchers have documented declines in five of the 19 Arctic polar bear groups, largely southernmost populations, such as those on Alaska's Beaufort Sea, where global warming's effects have been greatest. The declines are expected to spread northward with climate change.

Leading polar bear researcher Steven Amstrup recently said publicly that a vast area of open water appeared this spring along the Arctic shore, creating an ice-free zone that extends beyond the horizon.


E-mail Matt Weiser at mweiser(at)
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