Groups Press Legal Action on Behalf of Polar Bears
SAN FRANCISCO, California, March 11, 2008 (ENS) - Three conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the Bush administration on Monday for missing the legal deadline to issue a final decision on whether or not to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, say that due to global warming the polar bear's icy habitat is shrinking.

"Polar bears live only in the Arctic and are totally dependent on the sea ice for all of their essential needs," the three groups said in a joint statement. "The rapid warming of the Arctic and melting of the sea ice pose an overwhelming threat to the polar bear, which could become the first mammal to lose 100 percent of its habitat to global warming."

Arctic sea ice is disappearing, placing polar bear survival in doubt. (Photo by Daniel Beltra courtesy Greenpeace)

The groups filed their lawsuit today in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The lawsuit seeks a court order compelling the administration to issue the final decision on polar bear protection immediately.

"The Endangered Species Act is absolutely unambiguous. The Fish and Wildlife Service was required to make a final decision months ago. Now it's up to a federal court to throw this incredible animal a lifeline," said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Endangered Species Project at NRDC. "We need urgent action from this administration, to protect the polar bear and reduce greenhouse gas pollution, not continued delay."

The Endangered Species Act listing process for the polar bear was initiated in February 2005 with a scientific petition from the three groups. In December 2005, these groups sued the Bush administration for failing to respond to the petition.

As a result of that first lawsuit, in February 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that protection of polar bears "may be warranted," and began 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, 2007, at which time the Service announced the proposal to list the species as "threatened."

By law, the Service was required to make a final listing decision within one year of the proposal. The decision is now more than two months overdue, the groups say.

"The Bush administration seems intent on slamming shut the narrow window of opportunity we have to save polar bears," 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. "We simply will not sit back and passively allow the administration to condemn polar bears to extinction."

The groups claim the Bush administration is dragging its heels on the polar listing so oil leasing can proceed in the Arctic. A decision to list the species would mean that their habitat must be protected from any federal government activity that might threaten their survival.

Noting that the federal government initiated lease sales to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea earlier this month, Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace USA, said, "Our lawsuit has forced the Bush administration's hand on the issue of global warming like no other, even as it rubberstamps drilling rights for Big Oil in pristine polar bear habitat. If the federal government is really serious about protecting the polar bear, then its next steps will be to cancel lease sales in the Chukchi Sea and immediately implement a plan for deep cuts in U.S. global warming pollution."

Since the petition to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act was first filed in February 2005, new science paints a dim picture of the polar bear's future.

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 leading scientists now predict the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer as early as 2012.

To date, the government has received approximately 670,000 comments in support of protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, including letters from eminent polar bear experts, climate scientists, and more than 60 members of Congress.

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