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What polar bears get from new protected status

A recovery plan is ensured. But US includes caveats to safeguard oil and gas drilling.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 2008

Threatened: Polar bears were designated as threatened Wednesday. The Endangered Species Act does not regulate greenhouse gases, which many say affect sea-ice habitat.

Joseph Napaaqtuq Sage/AP

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The Interior Department’s long-awaited decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species was a victory, of sorts, for the bear.

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It came as a surprise to many who expected the Bush administration to avoid the listing, due to worries that it would curb oil and gas exploration in the bears’ habitat or, worse, make every emitter of greenhouse gases answerable to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

But in announcing the new threatened status, the administration simultaneously specified unusual stipulations designed to mitigate those effects.

“I truly believe I made the right decision,” says Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. “I did it so that yes, we’ll protect the bear. But we’re also not going to adversely impact the development of oil and gas that the country needs.”

Environmental groups immediately praised the landmark listing, at the same time that they criticized the limits placed on it, in some cases promising to sue to get stricter measures adopted.

“This is an historic moment. It’s the clearest acknowledgment to date we’ve had from this administration of global warming’s urgency,” says Kassie Siegel, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of three groups that had sued the administration over its long delays in making the decision. “But they’re also simultaneously acting to reduce the protection the bear would get under the law.”

With its new status, the polar bear will see a few tangible changes: Hunters can no longer bring trophies back to the US, and new studies and a recovery plan will be mandated.
But broader impacts are likely to be few. The listing includes a special rule about greenhouse-gas emissions, noting that they can’t and shouldn’t be regulated by the Endangered Species Act.

Secretary Kempthorne took care to note that greenhouse-gas emissions can’t and shouldn’t be regulated by the ESA, issuing a special order to that effect. It’s an action he says is important to prevent unintended economic consequences – new power plants blocked, for instance, or individual emitters sued – and which he says is consistent with science, since it can’t make the direct causal connection required by the ESA between the emissions from one particular source and the death of a bear in the North.

“When the Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, I don’t think the term climate change was in our vernacular,” he says, expressing frustration with the inflexible tools available to him.

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