(CNSNews.com) - With the Interior Department failing to meet Wednesday's deadline to decide whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, environmental groups say they are ready to take the federal government to court over the matter.
The Center on Biological Diversity initiated the Endangered Species Act listing process for the polar bear with a petition filed in February 2005. The group went to court in December 2005 due to a lack of action by the federal government. In December 2006, the Department of the Interior proposed listing the bear, which triggered Wednesday's deadline.
"We are making this proposal because scientific review of the species by the Fish and Wildlife Service found that populations may be threatened by receding sea ice, which polar bears use as a platform for many activities essential to their life cycle, including hunting for their main prey, arctic seals," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said when the listing was proposed.
"There is concern that their habitat may literally be melting," he said.
According to a Congressional Research Service report from October, while polar bears depend on Arctic sea ice - which "most scientists acknowledge will be affected by climate warming" - less than one-third of the 19 known or recognized polar bear populations are declining, more than one-third are increasing or stable.
The remaining third have insufficient data available to estimate population trends and their status has not been assessed.
The report also notes that "polar bears today are not coping with changing climate alone, but also face a host of other human-induced factors - including shipping, oil and gas exploration, contaminants, and reduced prey populations - that compound the threat to their continued existence."
Over the last year, the department has sought input from the U.S. Geological Survey, which determined in September that "future reduction of sea ice in the Arctic could result in a loss of two-thirds of the world's polar bear population within 50 years."
"The legal deadline is Wednesday," said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The administration announced they were going to be late, and so what we've said is that we're going to be filing our formal notice of intent to sue."
Siegel noted that they must then wait 60 days to file suit. "We all hope the species will be listed within 30 days - if it is, there may not be another lawsuit. The track record of this administration makes us feel like we need to get this process started."
But the Department of the Interior noted in a statement that "the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working diligently to reach a final decision on the proposal to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
"We expect to provide a final recommendation to the Secretary of the Interior and finalize the decision within the next month," the department said.
But Siegel told Cybercast News Service that she is concerned that the listing was delayed so that the polar bear habitat along the Chukchi Sea could be sold for oil and gas development on Feb. 6.
"I hope that this delay is evidence that responsible adults in the administration are now looking over the shoulder of Secretary Kempthorne," countered Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Ebell told Cybercast News Service that the department has been "moving forward enthusiastically with this listing without paying much attention to the actual science or to the probable consequences of listing the polar bear."
"The Endangered Species Act is written in such a way that it really trumps every other law on the books," he said. "It's a very important regulatory tool."
Ebell said if the polar bear is listed as an endangered species, it could block development projects around the country because they would be creating greenhouse gases and thus endangering polar bears.
"The polar bear is not endangered or threatened - its numbers have gone up by five or six-fold since around 1950 as a result of changes in management and hunting," he said. "Most of the populations seem to be doing well and prospering.
"The alleged threats to the bear are based on highly speculative computer models, and if you put in the right assumptions, you will come up with very negative consequences for the polar bear and no doubt for other species as well," Ebell charged. "I don't think they are scientific evidence at all," he added calling the computer models "shaky science."
But Siegel said, "I believe that they are critically endangered right now."
"Five of the world's populations are classified as declining already, and scientists have described what will happen to polar bears as the Arctic sea ice melts," she said. "They are already drowning, starving, and resorting to cannibalism because they don't have access to their usual food sources. The sea ice retreat is happening much faster than forecasted."
"There is very little reason to think that the Arctic is going to be clear of sea ice every summer starting in a few years," said Ebell. "You saw a big warming back into the 1930s, and now we're experiencing another warming. People always take some period in the recent past as the normal and any change in that is somehow abnormal."
The Congressional Research Service report, however, said, "Although some scientists predict the extinction of polar bears under potential climate change scenarios, not all sea-ice changes would harm polar bears.
"For example, reduced sea ice thickness and coverage in far northern regions could improve polar bear habitat, by increasing the availability and accessibility of ice-dependent prey, such as ringed seals."
"In the short-term, some polar bear populations in the high Arctic could benefit perhaps from melting, but a short-term benefit is absolutely irrelevant, because once that ice goes away, those populations won't be able to survive," said Siegel.
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