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Polar Bear Endangerment Decision Looms


Tomorrow, the Bush administration has to make what could be a major decision about polar bears. A federal judge ordered the administration to decide if those bears belong in the federal endangered species list. And the ruling is important because polar bears are polar bears, as well as because a listing could force the government to do something about climate change. NPR's John Nielsen explains.

JOHN NIELSEN: As of now, there are at least 20,000 polar bears living in the Arctic. Normally, an animal this numerous would not be considered for a spot on the endangered species list. But for polar bears, these aren't normal times. That's because the ice sheets the polar bears hunt on are shrinking, many believe due to global warming. Steven Amstrup is a polar bear scientist in Alaska.


STEVEN AMSTRUP: The nature of this sea ice is different. It's thinner, and it's extent - especially in the summertime - is much reduced. Those conditions are projected to accelerate, and so we're concerned about polar bears for the future, not how they are in the present day.

NIELSEN: Amstrup, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey, says it's possible that the main threat the polar bears is now man-made greenhouse gasses. That concern became a legal issue about three years ago when the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the Department of Interior. The Endangered Species Act requires the government to consider these kinds of petitions, but Kassie Siegel, the lawyer who wrote it, says it wasn't just designed to get the bear on the list.

KASSIE SIEGEL: But also to raise awareness of their plight and to try to make the point that global warming is not some future threat which is distant from people in time and space, but it's here, it's now, it's concrete, it's urgent and it's local.

NIELSEN: Early last year, the Bush administration issued a tentative response to the petition. It proposed to classify the world's remaining polar bears as threatened, but not endangered. After the government failed to issue a final ruling, activists like Siegel went to court to force tomorrow's deadline. Siegel hopes the Bush administration will strengthen its original plan tomorrow by declaring the bears endangered. That is important, she says, because endangered animals get more protection than threatened ones do.

SIEGEL: The difference is that the government has the option to reduce certain protections to threatened species, and they cannot do that for endangered species.


NIELSEN: Siegel and her colleagues hope to use an endangered species listing to force the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That's because this law requires the government to protect the habitats for the endangered species, which in this case means taking steps to stop the Arctic sea ice from melting. But critics of the idea of a polar bear listing say it's a bad idea for several reasons. Some object to the whole notion of protecting an animal on the basis of computer models designed to protect the effects of climate change. Others warn that a listing could force Americans to spend billions of dollars changing the way they use energy. Kenneth Green, a climate policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says many will wonder whether it's worth it.

KENNETH GREEN: It's going to make Americans do what they've never done before, which is say what am I willing to pay for that species in the Arctic, far north, that I'll never see? And if I did, it would probably try to eat me.

NIELSEN: Green thinks an endangered species listing could end up backfiring on the environmentalists.

GREEN: The polar bear protection plan could cause such trouble that it leads to a reexamination of the entire Endangered Species Act.

NIELSEN: John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.