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Obligations for polar bear protection met, judge rules


October 18, 2011
Tuesday AM

(SitNews) - A federal judge has thrown out a key section of an Interior Department rule concerning the threat to polar bears posed by global warming. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan held that a special rule under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) adequately provides conservation measures for protecting the polar bear striking down a 2008 Bush administration rule Monday that exempted greenhouse gas emissions from regulation under provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

Monday's ruling by the District of Columbia federal court denied an environmentalist group’s ESA challenge to the special rule issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The court’s decision confirms there is no need for additional and unnecessary regulatory permitting requirements.

jpg Obligations for polar bear protection met, judge rules

Polar bear and cubs
Photo by Steve Amstrup
Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wild Life Service

However, the court also held that Interior had broad discretion when crafting species-specific rules and therefore did not substantively violate the Endangered Species Act in adopting the exemption for the polar bear. A similar interim rule issued simultaneously with listing of the polar bear as threatened in May 2008 remains in place until Interior complies with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by completing a new environmental impact statement and issues a new final rule.

The court also ordered the USFWS to undertake further review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regarding the procedure by which the rule was issued.

Alaska and others had intervened in support of the special rule issued by the USFWS because the polar bear is already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as well as treaties and international agreements.

Alaska Attorney General John Burns welcomed Monday's ruling. “The court’s decision confirms that additional protections under the ESA are unnecessary,” said General Burns. “There was no sound reason to roll back those MMPA measures and rely on other untested programs on the North Slope or other areas within the polar bear’s range. This means that Alaskans, governments, and businesses can continue to safely manage human-bear interactions in their villages and workplaces," said Burns. 

According to a news release from Alaska Attorney General John Burns, the State is, however, disappointed that the court will be remanding the final rule, issued in December of 2008, for further procedural review under NEPA. While this process continues, the Interim Final Special Rule, issued in May 2008 and effectively equivalent to the final rule, will remain in place.

The challenge was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace and Defenders of Wildlife. The conservation groups responded to the ruling as follows:

“Today’s [Monday's] decision squarely places the fate of the polar bear back in the hands of the Obama administration. Rather than continue to defend an ill-conceived Bush-era rule, the Obama administration should take this opportunity to carefully craft a new rule that meaningfully addresses greenhouse gas emissions, the primary threat to the polar bear,” said Brendan Cummings at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Just this summer, Arctic sea ice reached its second lowest level on record, making polar bear protections more important than ever,” said Jason Rylander, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “Only by acknowledging and accounting for the dramatic effects of climate change can this administration give this Arctic icon a realistic chance of survival.”

“Now that the Department of the Interior must weigh in for the first time with full environmental analysis, the Obama administration is going to own this issue,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Lands and Wildlife program for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It affords the president an opportunity to show he is serious about dealing with climate change and protecting wildlife. The court’s ruling means the Obama administration won’t be able to hide behind Bush-era policies on an issue the public clearly cares about.”

“The court’s decision is bittersweet - it acknowledges the devastating impact of global warming on polar bears and requires further review of the 4(d) rule, but stops short of fully disallowing an exemption for greenhouse gases. We will redouble our efforts to protect the polar bear's Arctic Ocean habitat, and continue to press the Obama administration to use all available tools, including the Endangered Species Act, to address greenhouse emissions and the climate crisis,” said John Hocevar, oceans director at Greenpeace.

The polar bear was the first species added to the endangered species list solely because of threats to the species from global warming. Monday’s ruling does not limit the applicability of the ESA to greenhouse gas emissions affecting species listed as endangered under the Act or to other threatened species for which Interior has not issued a specific exemption.


Edited by Mary Kauffman, SitNews

Sources of News: 

Office of Alaska Attorney General

Center for Biological Diversity


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