By John DeFore
Are polar bears in danger of extinction? U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland wants to know, and has given the Bush administration two more weeks to find out.
Judge Wilken said today that the administration had no legitimate reason for failing to meet a January 9 deadline (one year after the bear was proposed for listing) on declaring the bears endangered or not. The judge directed the Department of the Interior to issue its decision by May 15 to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The court ruling resulted from a lawsuit brought by three environmental organizations — the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace — in which the plaintiffs cite bears’ rapidly shrinking natural habitat: Diminished ice coverage at the poles has meant that bears have fewer places to seek food; starvation and lower rates of reproduction have been observed in recent years as warming trends melt the ice.
“Today’s decision is a huge victory for the polar bear,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “By May 15th the polar bear should receive the protections it deserves under the Endangered Species Act, which is the first step toward saving the polar bear and the entire Arctic ecosystem from global warming.”
Siegel authored the 2005 petition seeking protection for the polar bear. Other environmentalists shared her elation over today’s decision to stop the delays by the current administration.
“The federal court has thrown this incredible animal a lifeline,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC’s Endangered Species Project. “The Endangered Species Act requires the decision to be based solely on science, and the science is absolutely unambiguous that the polar bear deserves protection.”
While such court rulings can have a built-in waiting period, Wilkin made a point of negating that in this case. With efforts currently underway to start drilling for oil in the Chukchi Sea, potential protection under the Endangered Species Act has serious ramifications on oil exploration; it would also require the Fish and Wildlife service to start planning ways to rebuild polar bear populations.
According to the NRDC, a study by the government’s own U.S. Geological Survey “predicted that two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population would likely be extinct by 2050, including all polar bears within the United States. Several leading scientists now predict the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer as early as 2012.”
To learn more about the polar bear, visit the NRDC’s polar bear facts section.
Photo: National Resources Defense Council.
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