WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced Wednesday that the agency will list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But there are strings attached: an administrative letter that will have conditions to "keep from harming the economy."Kempthorne's decision is his first Endangered Species Act listing since taking office in 2006. Conservation groups petitioned the agency for the designation, which would be the first for an animal that is losing its habitat to global warming.
Kempthorne said the Endangered Species Act should not be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and that the listing will not "set backdoor climate policy."
"That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the ESA," Kempthorne said. "This listing will not stop global climate change or prevent sea ice from melting."
Government scientists predicted in September that shrinking sea ice will leave only a remnant surviving population of the world's polar bears in the islands of the Canadian Arctic by mid-century. The U.S. Geological Survey study, done as part of the assessment for listing the bears, found that two-thirds of the world's polar bears will have disappeared. That includes those along the coasts of Alaska and Russia.
Last week, a Canadian scientific panel recommended that the polar bear remain a "special concern species," rather than elevate it to the more drastic designations of threatened or endangered.
The committee chose not to consider climate change effects in its population projections, though it expressed "considerable concern" about the bears' future. U.S. law does not provide for the lesser "special concern" option.
Prodded by courts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began studying a possible listing in December 2006. But the Interior Department failed to make a decision by a January 2008 deadline, and two weeks ago, a federal court in California ordered the Interior Department to issue its decision by Thursday.
Scientists think there are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in the world. One-fifth or so live in Alaska and nearby on the coast of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
The bears are considered marine mammals because they depend on sea ice for hunting their prey: seals breathing through holes or along the edges of the ice.
Polar bears have been known to live as long as 30 years, which means that today's young bears may be part of the last generation in Alaska.
While older bears will probably survive -- if not thrive -- scientists expect to see cubs and young adults die off and reproduction rates decline. Already, studies have reported shrinking weight and rising mortality of cubs. There have also been reports of polar bears drowning.