DENVER — The Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging the Bush administration´s decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species, the latest salvo in the debate over global warming and its impact on Arctic wildlife.
Reed Hopper, the foundation´s lead attorney on the case, said the polar-bear listing under the Endangered Species Act was the first time “that a thriving species has been listed based entirely on speculative models forecasting future events.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the polar bear as a threatened species in a May 14 decision based on U.S. Geological Survey reports predicting a loss in summer sea ice, considered critical habitat for the polar bear.
As critics pointed out, however, the polar bear itself has thrived in recent years, with its numbers rising over the last half-century to an estimated 25,000, the highest in recorded history.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared the polar bear to be threatened solely because admittedly unverified and uncertain climate models predict a declining trend in Arctic sea ice, and not because of any current decline in polar-bear population,” said Mr. Hopper yesterday at a news conference.
The foundation´s lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal challenges to take on the polar-bear listing. Lawsuits have also been filed by the state of Alaska, the Center for Biological Diversity, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Safari Club.
At issue is whether the listing will become a proxy for a federal crackdown on petroleum emissions. Some scientists say that greenhouse gas emissions have caused global temperature increases, which have led to the melting of polar sea ice.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said at the time that the agency would take no steps to thwart climate change as a result of the listing, and that it would provide no additional protections other than those existing under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
But critics worry that listing could be the first step in a potentially devastating hit to the economy if the ruling leads to curbs on industry and transportation.
“In short, the polar is not threatened, but the listing itself threatens our already weakened economy,” Mr. Hopper said. “It simply invites attacks on our economy and American jobs based on speculative concerns that defy actual conditions on the ground.”
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Joshua Winchell said the agency was unable to comment on ongoing litigation.
Environmental groups, which have called on the agency to bolster the polar-bear listing by including restrictions on oil-and-gas development, denounced the lawsuits as the work of profit-hungry petroleum firms.
“We believe the science is clear that the polar bear deserves the full sweep of protections under the Endangered Species Act, and these petitions to overturn the listing are an attempt to put politics and Big Oil before science,” said Cindy Hoffman, spokeswoman for Defenders of Wildlife.
Joe Pouliot, director of climate and policy communications for the World Wildlife Fund, said the lawsuits move the issue in the wrong direction.
“We applaud the decision by the administration to list the polar bear and would like to see the decision strengthened,” Mr. Pouliot said. “We oppose any effort to weaken the protections the Secretary of the Interior and scientific community have said the bears´ survival depends on.”
Mr. Hopper disagreed, saying that under the worst-case scenario, the agency´s models predict a 78 to 90 percent survival rate for the polar bears over the next 40 to 50 years.
The Pacific Legal Foundation represents “a wide spectrum of small businesses, food producers, family farmers, property owners, employers and consumers as well as the poor and minorities nationwide who would be harmed by restriction regulations that will likely result from the polar bear listing,” according to a statement.