Bear deadline

Stop delaying polar bear decision, court tells feds

A federal judge ruled April 28 that the U.S. Department of the Interior must stop delaying its decision about whether to add the polar bear to the endangered species list.

THREATENED BEARS? The Department of Interior should not let the arctic refreeze before issuing a decision on protections for the polar bear, says a court. Scott Schliebe/USFWS

District Court Judge Claudia Wilken set the deadline for the department to publish the decision as May 15, more than four months after the decision was originally expected.

After a lawsuit, DOI announced a proposal at the end of 2006 to add the polar bear to the federal list in the threatened species category. The timetable for listing allows a year for deliberations. When January 2008 arrived, though, DOI’s Fish and Wildlife Service said that it needed at least a month more before issuing a final decision.

The delay has lengthened, and the latest government target for the decision, included in court documents, had been June 30.

In March, three environmental organizations filed a complaint asking the court to end the delays. On Monday, Wilken, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, issued a decision without hearing oral arguments. Her decision says that “timeliness is essential” and “the issues are not complex.”

“The parties agree that Defendants [Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and the Fish and Wildlife Service] missed this non-discretionary deadline,” the decision reads.

The proposal to list the polar bear grows out of concerns that its arctic habitat is literally melting away as climate change causes increasingly large summertime meltdowns of the arctic ice cap. The bears rule the ice as hunters of seals and other animals. Biologists have worried that the ice master doesn’t compete well on land. The U.S. Geological Survey predicted that summer ice could dwindle drastically enough to wipe out two-thirds of the world’s polar bears by the middle of this century.

Current estimates put the global polar bear population at 20,000 to 25,000.

“The polar bear should receive the protections it deserves,” says Kassie Siegel, climate program director for one of the plaintiffs, the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity. The other plaintiffs are Greenpeace Inc. and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The DOI is reviewing the decision and evaluating its legal options, according to a statement from Interior spokesman Shane Wolfe.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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