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CENTER for BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY Because life is good

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The Center has been working on behalf of polar bears since 2001, when we successfully challenged the Bush administration’s suppression of a report implicating its plans for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development for likely violation of an international treaty requiring protection of polar bear habitat. The administration continued to press for oil and gas drilling in increasingly precious polar bear habitat, however, and the Center continued to fight those plans; we blocked Bush administration designs on drilling in the Beaufort Sea, which threatened to harm polar bears and other marine animals in coastal waters off the Arctic Refuge.

We’re at the forefront of the fight to protect polar bears and their habitat from the direst threat to their continued existence: global warming. As greenhouse gas emissions drive global warming at unprecedented rates, Arctic sea ice — critical to nearly every aspect of polar bear survival — melts earlier and more extensively each decade. The rate of summer sea-ice decline is so dramatic that leading researchers believe the Arctic could be completely devoid of ice in the summer as early as 2030. And even without that vanishing act, scientists predict that global warming will result in a shortening of the polar bear’s hunting season and a decrease in the sea-ice platform from which it stalks its primary prey, ringed seals, along with a decrease in winter fat stores and access to maternal denning sites. Recent cases of polar bear starvation and stranding at sea have already been documented and are likely to become more common as Arctic temperatures continue to rise rapidly.

When the bear was finally listed as threatened in May 2008, in response to our petition and lawsuits, Bush-appointed Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne issued an interim final rule assuring the public that the listing wouldn’t affect climate change policy or oil development — and that polar bears didn’t need the habitat protections of the Endangered Species Act because those afforded the bear by another law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, would suffice.

Then, in a bait-and-switch that wouldn’t fool a three-year-old, Interior waived Marine Mammal Protection Act safeguards for polar bears and walruses in the Chukchi Sea — effectively giving oil industries a blank check to harass the area’s wildlife. The Center was already gearing up for a lawsuit to protect polar bears from government-sanctioned oil development in both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and we’ve also sought to intervene in a hunting-group lawsuit challenging the bear’s protected status. In October 2008, our lawsuit challenging the weakness of the polar bear’s protections reaped a partial settlement requiring the Interior secretary to designate critical habitat and issue guidelines on nonlethal strategies to deal with bears that pose a threat to humans. 

But in December 2008, Kempthorne announced the issuance of a “4(d) rule” replacing the interim rule issued in May, which not only exempted greenhouse gas emissions and oil development from regulation under the Act, but was written in broader language than the May rule to exempt even more polar bear-threatening actions from regulation. 

When the Obama administration’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was given the chance to undo the 4(d) rule with the stroke of a pen in spring 2009 he firmly declined, leaving the polar bear extinction rule in place. In doing so, he ignored hundreds of thousands of citizen petitions to save the bear (94,000 from Center supporters) — as well as requests from more than 1,300 scientists, more than 50 prominent legal experts, dozens of lawmakers and more than 130 conservation organizations. The next year, the Obama administration dealt another painful blow to polar bears in approving an offshore oil and gas leasing program in the species’ habitat that was even worse than the plan proposed by Bush.

In part, our lawsuit against the original 4(d) rule aimed to get the bear’s status upgraded to “endangered,” which would mean the rule must be thrown out. In November 2010 a judge ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider deeming the bear “threatened” instead of “endangered,” but the next month Interior Secretary Ken Salazar followed in Kempthorne’s footsteps and refused to upgrade the bear’s status. Another part of the Center’s suit challenged the 4(d) rule directly, charging that it was illegal under the National Environmental Policy Act. In response, in October 2011 a judge agreed with us, throwing out the original rule and ordering the Obama administration to issue a final rule after full environmental analysis. But in 2012, the Obama administration announced it would reissue the polar bear extinction rule. 

In another of the Center’s astounding polar bear victories, in 2010 we won the species an unprecedented 120 million acres of the critical habitat — but a lawsuit by Big Oil and Alaska ultimately spurred a judge to void those original habitat protections, putting the designation back in Interior’s hands. We’ve successfully countered suits to delist the polar bear, as well as submitting a petition challenging the Canadian government’s 2011 decision denying polar bears “threatened” or “endangered” status under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. And we don’t intend to give up the polar bear’s needed critical habitat now without a fight.

Our full-court-press media campaign for the bear has helped shine an international spotlight on its plight and galvanize public opinion across the United States in support of its protection. As the Bush administration continued its suppression of climate science, we fought in the courts to ensure that the best science on global warming sees the light of day; we pushed for more responsible national energy policies and drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Now, we continue to defend the integrity of the Endangered Species Act so that it can fulfill its purpose in protecting all imperiled species, including the polar bear — whose listing we helped uphold in 2013 after appeals by multiple entities;

Photo © Thomas D. Mangelsen, ImagesOfNatureStock.com