Polar Bear Status Up For Debate

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Whether the polar bear is endangered, threatened, or doing just fine was debated in federal court Wednesday in Washington DC.

Lawyers for the federal government defended the 2008 U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision to list the bears as “threatened,” meaning they’re at risk of becoming endangered in the future.  But they were challenged from both sides. The State of Alaska and other groups argued that the bears shouldn’t be protected at all while the wildlife conservation group Center for Biological Diversity argued that the bears are already endangered, because the sea ice on which they hunt for seals is melting.

The Center’s Senior Counsel Brendan Cummings says the purpose of their case is to establish that polar bears are in danger of extinction.

CBD showed photographs of a starving bear, and bears so hungry they had turned to cannibalism.  They say ice is melting so fast that in as little as 15 years female bears won’t be on the ice long enough to develop the body fat necessary to reproduce.

CBD also argued that Fish and Wildlife violated the law by not using the best science available and came to conclusions not supported by the facts.

But the state of Alaska says the bear shouldn’t be listed at all, because there is not a population decline.  It’s concerned that protections for the bear could hamper oil and gas development.

The State’s Endangered Species Coordinator, Doug Vincent-Lang, says some amount of sea ice melt doesn’t prove that the bears are threatened.

The attorney who argued on behalf of the state of Alaska, Murray Feldman, says one problem is that the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t adequately consult with the state before making its decision, which is required by law.  He says that’s reason enough to throw out the “threatened” listing.  He also tried to poke holes in the agency’s decision.

Federal attorney Clifford Stevens defended the ‘threatened’ listing, and dismissed both sides’ criticisms about the bear population models used, saying far more information went into the Fish and Wildlife decision than just modeling.  He says the threatened listing is rational, because the bear is indeed likely to be in danger of extinction in the future, but isn’t right now.  Stevens called the polar bear a “classic case” of exactly what Congress intended the “threatened” category to be used for when they created it. The federal attorneys refused interviews with APRN.

The hearing on Wednesday was a melding of numerous cases related to the polar bear listing, so a variety of other groups also made arguments, like the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.  Its attorney, Jeff Feldman, sided with the federal government.  He says while the Inupiat residents are concerned about the implications of even a “threatened” listing, the Corporation believes the government’s arguments are sound.  But Feldman says they do want to make sure the feds don’t go further.

District Court judge Emmet Sullivan heard the arguments.  His decision could come any time in the next few months – he did not give attorneys a sense of when he will rule.

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