Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne declined to appear before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday for an oversight hearing on the department's delay on deciding whether to list the polar bear as an endangered species.
The committee chairman called Kempthorne's decision a "slap at the committee."
"This listing is months overdue in violation of the law," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the committee.
"Sadly, despite the peer-reviewed scientific evidence, despite the opinion of scientists in our own government, despite the fact that we have a strong, successful law to protect imperiled species - the Endangered Species Act (ESA) - the Bush administration continues to break the law by failing to make a final decision to list the polar bear," she said.
The Interior Department indicated in January that it would not meet the Jan. 9, 2008 deadline for classifying the bear, and it asked for 30 additional days to consider.
"The Bush administration does not have the right or discretion to ignore the law," Boxer said. She also intimated that she might compel Kempthorne to testify before the committee.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the committee, noted, "This is not the first time that the Fish and Wildlife Service has missed one of these deadlines. For example, in July 1998, the Clinton administration proposed to list the Canadian lynx as threatened under ESA."
Inhofe added that he commended the secretary for not appearing before the committee. "I think he's right in not doing it. I recommended that," he said, referencing a conversation he had with Kempthorne on Monday.
In a letter to the committee, Kempthorne wrote: "I have committed to appear before the Environment and Public Works Committee once a mutually agreeable date is found and a final determination on the polar bear has been made.
"Since a final determination has not been made, I must respectfully decline at this time the opportunity to appear at an April 2, 2008, hearing that was set without my prior agreement. I am, in my official capacity, one of the named defendants in litigation on the matter that is the subject of the hearing," he wrote.
"Careful deliberation will not imperil the survival of the polar bear," Kempthorne concluded.
But Kassie Siegel - climate, air, and energy program director at the liberal Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups suing Kempthorne - said "polar bears are poised to become global warming's first victims."
"Since the petition was filed to list the species under the Endangered Species Act more than three years ago, new reports detailing polar bear drownings, cannibalism, starvation, and population declines have been published," she noted.
"Impacts predicted for the coming decades have already occurred, with 5 of the 19 populations now considered to be declining," Siegel added.
"In September 2007, sea ice extent shrank to a record one million square miles below the average summer sea ice extent of the past several decades, reaching levels not predicted to occur until mid-century," she said.
"Some scientists have recently stated that if the rate of melting observed in 2007 continues, Arctic summer sea ice could be lost in as little as five years. The status of the polar bear has grown more dire, and, with it, the need for protection all the more compelling," Siegel said.
Siegel noted that they filed court papers Tuesday to force the department to make a decision, with a court date of May 8. A decision would be required within a week after that.
"The accelerated melting of the Arctic requires an accelerated response from the federal government," she said. "Instead, the Department of Interior has continued business-as-usual policies of foot-dragging, political interference, and illegal delay in Endangered Species Act decision-making."
But Inhofe said, "Listing the polar bear is not about protecting the polar bear, but about using the ESA to achieve global warming policy that special interest groups cannot otherwise achieve through the legislative process." He added that the majority of populations are considered stable.
"It would be a mistake to list the presently healthy and sustainable polar bear populations as a threatened species under the ESA," testified William Horn, former assistant secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks during the Reagan administration.
"Such action will produce a variety of adverse consequences including creating an ESA listing precedent that opens Pandora's Box in the form of other unwarranted listings that will diminish resources available for bona fide wildlife conservation and recovery efforts, setting the stage for new rounds of litigation and judicial activism to turn the ESA into a regulatory monster of unprecedented proportions, and harming existing successful polar bear conservation and management programs," Horn added.
"A decision to list a presently healthy species - exhibiting no present trajectory toward endangerment based on large scale hemispheric models forecasting problems 50 years in the future is a radical departure from the language of the ESA," he said.
"It pushes the decision horizon far into the genuinely unseeable future, is predicated on uncertain intervening events where it is difficult if not impossible to tie those events directly to specific on-the-ground situations and will likely precipitate the subsequent listing of an array of otherwise healthy species which might also be forecast to face problems a half century or more from now."
Horn added, "Listing today's healthy polar bear populations as threatened will open the gate to new rounds of litigation and judicial activism that will likely turn the ESA into a regulatory monster of unprecedented proportions."
He further noted that the ESA and the Fish and Wildlife Service have no expertise in the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.
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