A federal judge in Oakland has ordered the Interior Department to decide by May 15 whether the polar bear should be protected as an endangered species because of melting sea ice due to global warming.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken decided, in a ruling released Tuesday, that the government had failed to meet the deadline of Jan. 9, a legal requirement under the Endangered Species Act. She dismissed the Bush administration’s plea to give it until June 30, saying that officials offered “no specific facts that would justify the existing delay, much less further delay.”
To give the administration more time, the judge wrote, “would violate the mandated listing deadlines under the [Endangered Species Act] and congressional intent that time is of the essence in listing threatened species.”
Wilken’s decision is a victory for three conservation groups that petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the Interior Department, to protect the polar bear as a species threatened with extinction because of receding sea ice.
The polar bear makes its living hunting arctic seals when ice covers the polar seas. As the ice has retreated for longer periods every spring and summer, the fasting period for the bears has grown longer, weakening them and disrupting their reproduction.
Scientists have documented bears that have resorted to cannibalism and drowned between large gaps in the ice. In addition, reproductive rates for females and survival rates for cubs have declined, according to studies. The U.S. Geological Survey predicts that two-thirds of the polar bears may vanish by 2050.
The Interior Department issued a statement Tuesday, but declined to tip its hand. “We have received the court’s decision and are reviewing it,” said spokesman Shane Wolfe. “We will evaluate the legal options and will decide the appropriate course of action.”
Regardless of what the agency decides, lawyers for conservation groups said they believed that mounting scientific evidence would make it easy to persuade a judge that an endangered species listing was warranted.
Kassie Siegel, who wrote the initial petition for the Center for Biological Diversity, called the coming decision “the first step toward saving the polar bear and the entire Arctic ecosystem from global warming.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council said they sought the listing in part to force the Bush administration to take more serious steps toward combating global warming, such as imposing federal limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
When the department missed the January deadline, the groups sued to force action.
The polar bear listing comes as the Bush administration is moving to open to new oil and gas drilling prime polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s north coast. Under questioning from members of Congress, Interior Department officials have asserted that the delay on the polar bear listing and the movement toward new drilling are not connected.
Moreover, the Bush administration and global warming skeptics, such as Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, have argued that the effort to list the polar bear as endangered is part of an agenda by environmentalists to thwart new coal-fired power plants needed to meet U.S. energy needs.
“It’s unfortunate that the debate has become more about timelines than actual science,” Inhofe said through a spokesman. “What has become clear through this heavily litigated process is that listing the polar bear as a threatened species is not about protecting the polar bear, but rather advancing a particular political agenda.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the committee, said she was “pleased that the court has ordered the Interior Department to stop stalling and finalize its decision regarding polar bears. These magnificent creatures are in peril, and this administration has no right to walk away from protecting them.”