Sunday, May 18, 2008

Not Much Help for the Polar Bear

by The New York Times
May 18, 2008

Boxed into a corner by the courts and its own scientists, the Bush administration agreed last week to place the polar bear under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The decision was the clearest official acknowledgment that the bear, its hunting grounds diminished by shrinking summer ice, is seriously at risk.

It was a victory for conservationists and for the Interior Department’s scientists whose findings have often been twisted or ignored by the administration.

It is not clear that the decision is much of a victory for the bears. The listing appears to offer only modest new protections. United States law already bars the killing of bears. The listing will also prohibit the importing of hides or other trophies from bears killed in Canada.

It does nothing to address the gravest threats to the bears’ survival: oil and gas drilling and global warming. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the act — as he interprets it — in no way inhibits oil and gas development in prime polar bear habitat like the Chukchi Sea, where the department recently opened up 30 million acres to exploratory drilling.

He also said the listing could not be used as leverage to force power plants and other carbon dioxide sources to restrict emissions of greenhouse gases, even though those gases are heavily responsible for the ice’s melting. Mr. Kempthorne did not dispute that the bear’s habitat is shrinking or that in time the bear could face extinction. But using the Endangered Species Act to shape climate policy, he said, would be “wholly inappropriate.”

The act — designed to protect specific animals from chain saws, bulldozers and, yes, oil rigs — probably should not have to carry the burden of solving global warming. But President Bush has denied the problem for so long, refusing to offer serious remedies, it is little wonder that people are tempted to grab at any lever.

This leaves the polar bear much as before: living precariously in a changing world, and facing the added stresses of exploratory drilling with no real protection.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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