WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced Wednesday that the agency will list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a decision that could cast the bears as the enduring symbol of the effects of global warming.
But Kempthorne also warned that the listing "will not stop global climate change or prevent sea ice from melting" and that he will not permit the Endangered Species Act to be used as a tool for changing U.S. policy on global warming or greenhouse gas emissions. He pledged that the listing would not "set backdoor climate policy."
"Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears," Kempthorne said. "But it should not open the door to use the ESA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants, and other sources. That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the ESA."
Kempthorne's decision, forced by federal courts, is his first Endangered Species Act listing since joining President Bush's Cabinet in 2006. Conservation groups first petitioned the agency in 2005 for the designation, the first for an animal that's losing its habitat to global warming. Polar bears use sea ice as a platform to trap their primary prey, seals.
In his announcement, Kempthorne showed satellite images of the retreating polar ice over an 18-year period and said the government scientists have predicted that global warming will continue to melt the bears' sea ice habitat at an alarming rate.
There is no disputing the science behind their findings, Kempthorne said. But in the same breath he called the Endangered Species Act "perhaps the least flexible law Congress has ever enacted."
"The right decision, as tough as it was, was to list the bear," he said.
Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey predicted in September that only a small population of the existing 25,000 of the world's polar bears would remain in the islands of the Canadian Arctic by mid-century. The study, done as part of the assessment for listing the bears, found that two-thirds of the world's polar bears will have disappeared, mostly along the coasts of Alaska and Russia. About one-fifth of the bears live in Alaska and nearby on the coast of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
But Kempthorne said that there is simply no scientific way to connect specific greenhouse gas emissions from specific smokestacks to the harm of a species or its habitat.
Kempthorne on Wednesday had his director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issue a memo that says the existing technology doesn't make such a connection. As a result, when new power plants and other emitters of greenhouse gases seek permission to operate, the Fish and Wildlife Service can't use the polar bear listing as a reason to deny a permit.
The Interior Department also issued a rule Wednesday saying that if oil and gas development is allowed under the standards of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it will be allowed under the Endangered Species Act.
"This rule, effective immediately, will ensure the protection of the bear while allowing us to continue to develop our natural resources in the arctic region in an environmentally sound way," Kempthorne said.
Few people involved were left happy with the listing.
Kempthorne's reassurances about developing natural resources were not enough for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who said she was disappointed in the listing and remains concerned that federal actions will "threaten the viable, productive and environmentally responsible oil and gas industry along Alaska's North Slope."
Palin also said the state will "continue balancing responsible development of our nonrenewable resources while we're protecting that magnificent species of wildlife. We will work with this decision."
U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, had a more incendiary reaction, calling Kempthorne's decision "an assault on common sense." He also criticized listing a species as endangered based on projections, not current population threats.
"In the past 13 years, I have authored bills to protect populations of rhinos, tigers, elephants, and other species that were truly 'threatened' or 'endangered,' Young said. "I care about the future of the polar bears. But I must oppose the listing of the healthy polar bear species based on an arbitrary computer projection of their population in 2050. This is not sound science, it's a computer game."
Environmentalists also have conflicting feelings about Kempthorne's decision. The listing is a "watershed event because it has forced the Bush administration to acknowledge global warming's brutal impacts," said Kassie Siegel, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity and author of the 2005 petition to list bears for several environmental groups.
Yet simply listing the bear as threatened isn't enough, said Cindy Shogan, Executive Director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
"What matters for the bear is that quick, effective and significant steps are taken to protect its Arctic habitat," Shogan said. "That means keeping oil and gas activities away from the imperiled bear."
Kempthorne, a former U.S. senator and Idaho governor, was a critic of the Endangered Species Act in those roles, as well. Wednesday, he said that he was compelled to make the listing decision because he believed the agency's own research shows that global warming is melting the bears' polar habitat. His decision was a reluctant one, though, and he repeatedly criticized the Endangered Species Act Wednesday for its emphasis on listing rather than on developing management plans to restore species.
The agency had to be prodded by courts to consider listing polar bears. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began studying a possible listing in December 2006 and when the Interior Department failed to make a decision by a January 2008 deadline, a federal court in California ordered a decision by Thursday.
The decision was slowed in part by the sheer volume of information processed by the Fish and Wildlife Service and, ultimately, Kempthorne. The Interior secretary also read reports submitted by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin disputing the dire projections for the polar bear population. Kempthorne said he felt duty-bound to see whether the state's concerns had merit, but ultimately was comfortable with the science behind his own agency's projections.
"I read the letter from the governor," Kempthorne said. "I read what her biologist had submitted, the official questions raised by Alaska. I wanted to be satisfied that we could answer every one of those questions, and I am satisfied."
Bush administration interference played no role in their tardy listing, Kempthorne said. An internal investigation by the Interior Department's inspector general found last year that a deputy secretary in charge of endangered species designations interfered in earlier decisions, and had a conflict of interest in decisions that would have affected her own property.
"At no time was there ever a suggestion that this was not my decision," Kempthorne said of his talks with Bush. Kempthorne said that the president told him that when it came from polar bears, his only instructions were "you do what you need to do."
Last week, Kempthorne signed a memorandum of understanding with his Canadian counterpart, John Baird, pledging to cooperate on research and management of existing polar bear populations that roam both countries.
Earlier this month, a Canadian scientific panel recommended that the polar bear remain a "special concern species," rather than elevated to the more drastic designations of threatened or endangered.
The committee chose not to consider climate change effects in its population projections, though it expressed "considerable concern" about the bears' future. U.S. law does not provide for the lesser "special concern" option.