Friday, January 18, 2008

polar bears wait-listed as endangered species

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Interior Department Agency which determines endangered species, has delayed its one-year-plus investigation of the polar bear (due for ruling on January 9th), asking for another month to make the decision. The federal government was sued two years ago by environmental groups to declare the polar bear endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

If the species is declared threatened, FWS will have responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act to protect the bears from their main danger — in this case, climate change. That means the government could be challenged legally for anything that increases carbon dioxide emissions — like a new coal power plant — on the grounds that further climate change would further endanger the polar bear. "It would be the first time that the Bush Administration would recognize that global warming had a significant and specific impact on a living being," says Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesperson for Markey. "This could have a wide-ranging effect on the energy and environmental policies of this country."

That's a positive spin, but the reality is that FWS will only have limited ability to deal with global warming — and the polar bear is the only first of countless millions of species that could be forced into extinction because of rising temperatures. Conservationists are facing the depressing possibility that all the effort of the past several decades to save endangered species — controlling poaching, creating wildlife reserves, banning animal trade — may be for naught if climate change continues unchecked. In a drastically warmer world, habitats for many species — like the polar bear — could simply disappear, taking the animals with them. Nearly one-third of the world's animals are already under the threat of extinction, and the current rate of species loss is 10,000 times the natural rate. "Global warming has such far-reaching implications [for conservation] that it's very depressing," says Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace. "Those are the thoughts that send me to the bar." It could start with polar bears, but if we can't get a handle on climate change, one more species might end up threatened: us.

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