A judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] on Thursday upheld [opinion, PDF] a 2008 decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) [official website] to list polar bears as "threatened" on the endangered species list because of melting polar ice caps caused by global warming [JURIST news archive]. Environmental groups and the state of Alaska were in conflict as to the proper way to address the bears' protection, with environmental groups wanting more protection and Alaska arguing that the listing was unnecessary because of other existing laws and the alleged uncertainty of climate science. The court, however, ruled in favor of the FWS:
Some plaintiffs in this case believe that the Service went too far in protecting the polar bear; others contend that the Service did not go far enough. According to some plaintiffs, mainstream climate science shows that the polar bear is already irretrievably headed toward extinction throughout its range. According to others, climate science is too uncertain to support any reliable predictions about the future of polar bears. However, this Court is not empowered to choose among these competing views. Although plaintiffs have proposed many alternative conclusions that the agency could have drawn with respect to the status of the polar bear, the Court cannot substitute either the plaintiffs' or its own judgment for that of the agency. Instead, this Court is bound to uphold the agency's determination that the polar bear is a threatened species as long as it is reasonable, regardless of whether there may be other reasonable, or even more reasonable, views. That is particularly true where, as here, the agency is operating at the frontiers of science.Although polar bears are at an unendangered population now, it is predicted that melting ice caps will kill 10,000 of the species [AP report].
In 2009, the Obama Administration received criticism for preserving the controversial Bush-era rule [text, PDF] that limits how polar bears are protected from global warming. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar [official profile] had received special permission from Congress to amend the rule, which prevented the use of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) [text, PDF] to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Polar bears are protected under the ESA, and environmentalists have argued that the release of greenhouse gases has contributed to global warming, which is destroying the polar bear's arctic habitat. The rule was put in place in December 2008 after the polar bear was listed as threatened on the endangered species list in May 2008. The Department of the Interior [official website] made the designation more than two years after the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council [advocacy websites] petitioned to protect the polar bear under the ESA. Shortly after that, then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin announced that her office would launch a court challenge [JURIST report] to the listing of the polar bear on the endangered species list. Palin argued that the designation of the polar bear as "threatened" would have a negative impact on development in Alaska.