The Week in Washington

by William Yeatman on January 11, 2008

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Monday that it would not meet a January 9th court-ordered deadline to decide whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. But a decision could be made in the next month or two.

The biggest booster within the Bush Administration to list the polar bear is Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, with strong support from Interior's number two, Lynn Scarlett. The obstacle is that bear populations are not threatened and in fact have increased dramatically since 1950, partly or even largely as a result of less hunting.

The basis for listing the bear comes from computer models that predict that global warming will cause widespread melting of the Arctic sea ice in the summer. Polar bears are strong swimmers, but need some sea ice in order to get to their major food source, seals.  The general circulation models used were not designed to have predictive capacity and in fact do not have predictive capacity. However, under the peculiar rules of the Endangered Species Act, these models may have to be deferred to as the best scientific evidence available.

If Secretary Kempthorne gets his way, the polar bear listing will become a powerful tool to stop hydrocabon energy use. Every proposal to build something that would increase greenhouse gas emissions that comes before a local zoning or planning commission could be challenged on the grounds that greenhouse gas emissions increase global warming, which in turn threatens the survival of polar bears. If the planning or zoning body went ahead and approved the permit, then it would likely be challenged in federal court.

Past experience suggests that the Endangered Species Act has such unlimited regulatory reach that most federal judges would decide that it requires them to rule against almost any alleged threat to a protected species.

This is clearly a train wreck in the making, and it can only be hoped that responsible adults in the administration decide to rely on the real science and therefore to squash Kempthorne's effort.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: