SAVING THE POLAR BEAR: BACKGROUND
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.
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