The Bush administration yesterday declared global warming a threat to polar bears but took steps to ensure that the long-awaited decision would not threaten businesses and oil drilling that environmentalists blame for the species' decline.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the depletion of sea ice — the bears' habitat — puts the animal at risk of becoming endangered in the "foreseeable future," the standard for such designations under the Endangered Species Act. This is the first designation based on global warming assumptions, though the animals' numbers are not declining.
"While the legal standards under the ESA compel me to list the polar bear as threatened, I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting," Mr. Kempthorne said.
"Any real solution requires action by all major economies for it to be effective. That is why I am taking administrative and regulatory action to make certain the ESA isn"t abused to make global warming policies," Mr. Kempthorne said.
The administration will introduce a rule to limit unintended harm to the economy by the listing, such as caps on greenhouse gas emissions in the lower 48 states that could limit building highways and power plants, or limitations on oil and gas drilling.
Environmentalists and lawmakers on Capitol Hill met the announcement with skeptical praise.
"This decision is a watershed event because it has forced the Bush administration to acknowledge global warming's brutal impacts," said Kassie Siegel, climate program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which led the listing effort.
"The administration's attempts to reduce protection to the polar bear from greenhouse-gas emissions are illegal and won't hold up in court," Miss Siegel said.
Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican and ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the decision "an assault on sound science and common sense" but praised efforts to protect resource development.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, said the decision "recognizes the science showing the grave threats global warming poses to the habitat of the polar bear."
Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he was disappointed that "Secretary Kempthorne failed to stand up to liberal special-interest groups who advocated this listing" and that the final decision was "based more on politics than science."
"Lost in the debate is the fact that polar bear numbers have dramatically increased over the past 40 years — a fact even liberal environmental activists are forced to concede," Mr. Inhofe said.
The bears are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are between 20,000 and 25,000 bears, with more than a dozen population species.
Betsy Loyless, senior vice president of the National Audubon Society, said the polar bears' listing "is not going to save it if we continue to melt and drill its habitat."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed the decision saying it recognizes the Endangered Species Act was never meant to address climate change.
"We must safeguard our environment while also protecting our economy," said William L. Kovacs, the chamber"s vice president of environmental affairs. "Today"s decision will protect the polar bear while also protecting American jobs and businesses."