The polar bear landed back in the Obama administration’s lap Monday after a federal judge ruled the Interior Department must conduct an environmental review before it can exclude climate change from its strategy in aiding the threatened species.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan said the Bush administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to formulate an environmental impact statement before issuing its ruling on the polar bear’s status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The Fish and Wildlife Service classified the polar bear as a threatened species in May 2008, but with the caveat that the designation could not be used to control greenhouse gas activity outside the species’ range. After President Obama took office in 2009, Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar refused to change the approach, saying that the ESA was not “the proper mechanism for controlling our nation’s carbon emissions.”
The decision enraged environmental groups, which called it “a gift to Big Oil” and slapped the administration with a lawsuit. Species advocates said Monday they were confident a comprehensive environmental review would show that global warming needs to be addressed in order to hasten the polar bear’s recovery.
“The court’s decision is bittersweet - it acknowledges the devastating impact of global warming on polar bears and requires further review of the 4(d) rule, but stops short of fully disallowing an exemption for greenhouse gases,” John Hocevar, Greenpeace oceans director, said in a statement.
He added that Greenpeace would “redouble our efforts to protect the polar bear’s Arctic Ocean habitat, and continue to press the Obama administration to use all available tools, including the Endangered Species Act, to address greenhouse emissions and the climate crisis.”
Critics have warned that using the Endangered Species Act to challenge global warming could cripple the economy, forcing production shutdowns no matter how far they may occur from the affected species.
Monday’s ruling gave environmental groups “half a loaf,” said Reed Hopper, principal attorney at the Pacific Legal Institute.
“The economy dodged a bullet,” Mr. Hopper said in a statement. “Had the court actually struck down the exemption, activists could have used the threat to polar bears from global warming to stop or curtail virtually any economic activity in the nation. Instead, the judge ruled that the government had reasonably concluded that the ESA could not resolve the primary threat to the polar bear - melting sea ice.”
The judge’s ruling directs Mr. Salazar to establish a timetable by Nov. 17 for completing the required environmental review. Judge Sullivan added that the 2008 policy will remain in force while the case proceeds.
Brendan Cummings, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, urged the Obama administration to use the decision as an opportunity to put its stamp on global warming and species recovery policy.
“Today’s decision squarely places the fate of the polar bear back in the hands of the Obama administration,” Mr. Cummings said in a statement. “Rather than continue to defend an ill-conceived Bush-era rule, the Obama administration should take this opportunity to carefully craft a new rule that meaningfully addresses greenhouse gas emissions, the primary threat to the polar bear.”
In a related decision, Judge Sullivan also upheld a decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to ban the import of sport-hunting polar bears as trophies. The case was brought by Safari Club International and other U.S. hunting organizations seeking to bring in polar-bear carcasses from Canada.
“Whether it’s a bullet from the barrel of a gun or pollution from a smokestack, polar bears have been under attack for too long,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee.
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.