U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilkin found the Bush administration guilty of violating the Endangered Species Act by missing the deadline for a final polar bear decision by nearly four months.
Judge Wilkin ruled for the plaintiffs, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, and Greenpeace, on all issues in finding that the Bush administration has violated the law
The court order, issued Monday evening, requires the administration to publish a final decision in the Federal Register by May 15, and for the decision to take effect immediately, bypassing a 30-day waiting period that applies unless circumstances warrant faster action.
The Interior Department had requested an additional delay, until June 30, for its lawyers to finish reviewing and revising the decision.
Polar bear mother and cub (Photo by Scott Schliebe courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The judge rejected the government's request, stating, "Defendants offer no specific facts that would justify the existing delay, much less further delay. To allow Defendants more time would violate the mandated listing deadlines under the ESA and congressional intent that time is of the essence in listing threatened species."
In rejecting the administration's claim that the polar bear will not be harmed in the absence of Endangered Species Act protection, the judge pointed to a pending proposal to permit oil industry operations in the Chukchi Sea, and stated, "Defendants fail to show that the 30-day waiting period will not pose a threat to the polar bear."
"Today's decision is a huge victory for the polar bear," said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the 2005 petition seeking the Endangered Species Act listing. "By May 15th the polar bear should receive the protections it deserves under the Endangered Species Act, which is the first step toward saving the polar bear and the entire Arctic ecosystem from global warming."
The polar bear is one of the world’s most imperiled animals due to global warming, say the conservation groups, noting that the Arctic sea ice on which the bear depends is melting much more quickly than forecast.
"Once again, the courts have found that the Bush Administration has been violating the law when it comes to protecting the environment," said U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. "In this case, the Administration clearly missed the deadline for action to protect the polar bear - a deadline they agreed to."
"Interior Secretary [Dirk] Kempthorne, like EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, has been stonewalling our Committee, and I am very pleased that the court has ordered the Interior Department to stop stalling and finalize its decision regarding polar bears," said Boxer. "These magnificent creatures are in peril, and this Administration has no right to walk away from protecting them."
Interior Department officials would say only that they are reviewing Judge Wilkins' ruling and considering their legal options.
In September, the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that two-thirds of the world's polar bear population would likely be extinct by 2050, including all polar bears within the United States.
Several scientists now predict the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer as early as 2012. The bears are already suffering starvation, drowning, and population declines as their sea ice habitat melts away.
"The federal court has thrown this incredible animal a lifeline," said Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC's Endangered Species Project. "The Endangered Species Act requires the decision to be based solely on science, and the science is absolutely unambiguous that the polar bear deserves protection."
Listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act guarantees federal agencies must ensure that any action they authorize, fund, or carry out will not jeopardize the polar bears' continued existence or adversely modify their critical habitat.
In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service must prepare a recovery plan for the polar bear, specifying measures necessary for its protection.
"We have won in the court of public opinion and of law," said Melanie Duchin, Greenpeace global warming campaigner in Alaska. "We hope that this decision marks the end of the Bush administration's delays and denial so that immediate action may be taken to protect polar bears from extinction."
This decision is the result of a 2005 petition by the groups to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. In December 2005, the groups sued the Bush administration for failing to respond to the original petition.
In February of 2006, as a result of that first lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that protection of polar bears "may be warranted" and commenced a full status review of the species.
A settlement agreement in that case committed the Service to make the second of three required findings in the listing process by December 27, 2006, at which time the Service announced the proposal to list the species as threatened.
The proposed listing rule was published in the Federal Register on January 9, 2007. By law, the Service was required to make a final listing decision within one year of the proposal.
The Service slipped the January 9, 2008 statutory deadline for making a final decision, prompting the current lawsuit.
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