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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Protecting the Polar Bear

Air Date: Week of

These polar bear cubs might become members of an endangered species soon. (Photo: Vera Le Bail)

Protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act could force the government to take action on global warming and development in the Arctic. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Bill Snape from the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs who sued the federal government to make a decision about the polar bear.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. The Bush administration is in legal hot water over what to do with an animal that likes its water very cold: the polar bear. A federal judge has ordered the administration to decide, once and for all, if polar bears need protection under the Endangered Species Act. The judge’s ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed by a number of environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, where Bill Snape is the senior counsel.

SNAPE: Well the good news is they must make a decision now by May 15th. The bad news potentially is that the administration could still create legal loopholes, they could still deny protection to the polar bear. So we’ll wait and see what the actual substance of their decision is on May 15th.

GELLERMAN: So the feds can decide that the bears don’t belong on the list.

SNAPE: They very well could decide that. I think perhaps a more likely scenario is that they will write the final rule in such a manner that oil and gas activities in polar bear habitat can still go forward despite the listing of the bear. The Endangered Species Act is an incredibly flexible law – not many people realize that – and there are some wise and not so friendly people to the bear at the Interior Department who I think are looking at ways to get around the law.

GELLERMAN: So what legal precedent, if any, does this set?

SNAPE: Well I think it’s very significant that if the polar bear were to be listed, and I think eventually it will be listed, it will be the first major species to be listed as a result of global warming impacts. It is not a huge deal in the respect that listings under the Endangered Species Act in general should follow a very logical, rational scientific process. It’s the Bush administration that has convoluted that process as it relates to the polar bear, because global warming doesn’t comport with their notion of truth.

GELLERMAN: There was a Canadian science advisory group that recently said the bear doesn’t need to be listed as endangered.

SNAPE: Well, under the Canadian law, there are actually different gradations of legal protection. That Canadian panel did say that it was worthy of some protection. But remember, that Canadian panel is allowed to take politics into account. The U.S. Endangered Species Act listing process, which is what we’re talking about here, is a science-only determination. It’s clear that politics, and oil and gas politics particularly, are against polar bear protection, but when you look at it from a sheer biological point of view, there are still thousands of bears left, but they are declining precipitously and their Arctic ice habitat is melting before our very eyes.

GELLERMAN: So is this about the bears, or is this about prohibiting, you know, invasion of their habitat by oil drilling companies?

(Photo: Vera Le Bail)

SNAPE: Well it’s absolutely about the bears, because the bears are doing poorly biologically, but I think the polar bear really is the canary in the coal mine. You’re seeing an Arctic ecosystem collapsing.

GELLERMAN: Is there any oil exploration going on right now, or proposed in the areas where polar bears populate?

SNAPE: Absolutely. In the Chukchi sea, an area about 30 million acres is now under lease for oil and gas activities by the very Department of Interior that is denying protection for this bear. So there is a lot at stake right now, not only with regard to the polar bear’s actual habitat, but with regard to the very type of oil and gas activities that are exacerbating global warming.

GELLERMAN: What happens May 15th if the Department of Interior does nothing?

SNAPE: They’ll be dragged into the court again. They could be found in contempt of court. And the good news here is that finally a federal judge is onto their shenanigans, and I think the administration will be hard pressed at this point to ignore what this judge has said.

GELLERMAN: Well, Bill Snape, thank you very much – really appreciate it.

SNAPE: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Bill Snape is senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity in Washington D.C.



U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program

Center for Biological Diversity


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