Controversial polar bear rule stands

Creature’s plight remains separate from decisions on greenhouse gas emissions

The Obama administration is not overturning the hotly debated Bush-era rule that limits provisions to protect the polar bear, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced May 8 at a press briefing.

The Obama administration is retaining the Bush-era rule that restricts provisions to protect the polar bear, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced May 8 at a press briefing. Tom Brakefield/Getty Images

So the status quo based on rule 4(d) will continue: Power plants, factories and other generators of greenhouse gases will not have to consider legal requirements for protecting polar bears under the Endangered Species Act.

Polar bears are listed in the “threatened” category under the ESA because climate change brought about by increases in greenhouse gas emissions is shrinking the bear’s habitat.

“However, the Endangered Species Act is not the proper mechanism for controlling our nation’s carbon emissions,” Salazar said. “Instead, we need a comprehensive energy and climate strategy that curbs climate change and its impacts — including the loss of sea ice.”

The Bush-era rule dates from the bear’s listing under the ESA in May 2008. At the time, then-Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne stated that the main reason for the listing was the threat from shrinking sea ice. But he warned that the Endangered Species Act should not be used as a way to regulate activities such as power generation that emits greenhouse gases and thus contributes to climate change. The administration finalized a special rule in December 2008 to that effect.

In March 2009 legislation, the new Congress offered the Obama administration a 60-day time period for reviewing and possibly rescinding this limitation. The Obama administration did rescind another rule that lightened the requirements for scientific consultation in government planning for protection of endangered species.

Secretary Salazar said the administration has chosen “to wisely implement” the 4(d) rule instead of scuttling it. He did highlight requests in the president’s proposed 2010 budget for additional money for polar bear protection.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, issued a statement saying, “I disagree with the Department of Interior’s decision to limit the tools we have available under the Endangered Species Act to save the polar bear from extinction.”

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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