Bear witnesses

Feature story - 11 March, 2008
Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity and the NRDC have filed a lawsuit against the Bush Administration for missing its legal deadline to issue a final decision on whether the polar bear should be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming.

The polar bear should be immediately listed as a 'threatened' species, due to the meltdown of its sea-ice habitat caused by global warming.

The lawsuit seeks a court order to compel the administration to issue the final decision immediately. Greenpeace activists returned to the US Department of Interior yesterday, designating the building as a 'critical habitat for oil lobbyists'.

Highlighting the repeated delays and deception with the listing process, the Department of Interior has used the time to press ahead with plans to lease 29 million acres of prime polar bear habitat for oil drilling.

A fifth of the remaining Arctic polar bears depend on Chukchi Sea ice in their hunt for food, yet new oil leases are opening up in the area and oil companies are lining up to obtain licences to drill.

View a slideshow of Greenpeace activists at the Department of Interior.

Bear essentials

Rising Arctic temperatures are reducing both the extent and duration of the sea ice, forcing polar bears to spend more time on land away from vital food supplies. The disappearing ice is particularly hard on breeding females, who must feed both themselves and their cubs.

In some areas, polar bear birth rates have dropped by up to 15% in the last decade.

Some climate models predict that the Arctic could be completely ice-free in summer by 2030. While, the US Geological Survey issued a report in September 2007 warning that, if current global warming projections continue, two-thirds of the world's polar bears will likely be extinct by 2050.

Drilling for oil in the Chukchi Sea will also subject polar bears to the threat of oil spills and other industrial disturbances. But, it doesn't stop there - once the oil is burned, it will exacerbate global warming, and that in turn will accelerate the melting of the Arctic sea ice.

Bear facts

With grim statistics and timelines like this, it's hard to understand why polar bears aren't already being protected. Being listed as a "threatened" species under the US' Endangered Species Act (ESA) will ensure that any action carried out, authorised or funded by the United States government does not jeopardise polar bears' continued existence or adversely modify their critical habitat.

So, forming a coalition with the Centre for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), we initiated the ESA process for the polar bear back in February 2005, calling for it to be listed under the Act due to global warming. It was time to throw the polar bears a desperately needed lifeline.

Under the ESA, a listing process of no longer than two years must be followed. Together with the Center for Biological Diversity and the NRDC, we sued the Bush Administration in December 2005 when it missed the first deadline in this process. In February 2006, in response to our lawsuit, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the protection of polar bears "may be warranted," and began a full review.

A settlement agreement in the case committed the Service to make the second of three required findings in the listing process by December 2007. At this time, the Service announced its proposal to list the species as threatened and had one year to make the final listing decision.

To date, the US government has received more than 670,000 messages in support of protecting the polar bear, including letters from eminent polar bear experts, climate scientists and US Congress members - a record number of comments in support of an Endangered Species Act listing.

The legal deadline to make the final decision to list the polar bear was January 9, 2008. It is now two months overdue. That's why we're going back to the courtroom. There's no more time for delay - the US must list the polar bear as a threatened species and take those steps to ensure that it is fully protected.

The US needs to act now - cancelling oil-drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea and immediately implementing plans for deep cuts in US global warming pollution.

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