WASHINGTON – The listing of the polar bear as a “threatened” species has been put on ice during the past year as the federal government pursued more scientific evidence and activists responded with litigation to try to speed things along.
But,like the sea ice habitats where the bears live,the debate about the listing is warming up and causing concern.
At issue Wednesday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was whether the government intentionally delayed the decision – past statutory and court-ordered deadlines – to benefit oil exploration in the Chukchi Sea. The region,off Alaska's northwest coast,is home to about one-fifth of the world's polar bear population.
Sen. Barbara Boxer,D-Calif.,the committee chair,lambasted Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's decision not to speak at the hearing as “a slap at this committee” and at the public.
Sen. James M. Inhofe,R-Okla.,the committee's senior Republican,said he had told the secretary that his decision to decline the invitation was the right one.
In a letter Tuesday to Boxer,Kempthorne said he would not attend because a final decision on the bear's status has not been made and because he is a defendant in a related,ongoing court case.
He promised to appear before the committee after a decision on the bear's status is finalized and suggested that further consideration “will better ensure that the decision is legally sound and based upon the best available science and the requirements of the law.”
Democrats and their expert witnesses spoke of greater urgency,citing September reports from the U.S. Geological Survey,which conservatively estimated that two-thirds of the current polar bear population will be gone by 2050 if the projected decline in sea ice holds true.
“The polar bear is already skating on thin ice,” and delaying a status change that would give its habitat more protection worsens its predicament,said Douglas Inkley,a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation.
William Horn,an attorney and the assistant secretary for fish,wildlife and parks during the Reagan administration,fired back for the Republicans,testifying that delays are “part and parcel of the litigation-listing process.”
Listing the polar bear as threatened as a result of global warming would divert resources from more immediate threats,expand the scope of the Endangered Species Act and put an overwhelming and inappropriate regulatory burden on the Fish and Wildlife Service,Horn said.
Boxer agreed that the service's role would shift and said congressional appropriations would need to reflect that change. She closed with a round of thanks to the “passionate defenders of the bear,” a group of which she appeared to be a part as she vowed,”I'm not willing to say goodbye to this species on my watch.”