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US enacts law to protect polar bears, but only from hunting

Leonard Doyle
Thursday 15 May 2008 00:00 BST

The United States declared the polar bear a threatened species yesterday; saying the dramatic reduction in sea ice caused by global warming has put it in imminent danger of extinction.

Yesterday marked the first time the US Endangered Species Act was used to protect a species threatened by climate change. The US Geological Survey says that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be gone by 2050.

The bears will only be protected from the direct effects of hunting, and some other activities, because of limits imposed by the Interior Department. It invoked a seldom used loophole to make it easier for the energy industry to actually expand activities that already threaten the bears and their habitat.

The Interior Secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, who spent much of his political life opposing the Endangered Species Act, said it would be "inappropriate" to use the polar bear listing "to regulate global climate change".

Rapid ice loss is endangering the bears which need to move on to sea ice to hunt seals and then migrate along the ice to their dens on the Arctic coast.

American scientists believe that sea ice loss will likely result in two-thirds of the polar bears disappearing by mid-century.

The plight of the polar bear has also caused vehement disagreement within the Bush administration and last month the conservative Canadian government refused to list the polar bear as endangered. Canada has some 15,500 polar bears and it has given the polar bear its weakest classification, that of "special concern", saying the animals were in trouble but not at risk of extinction.

The oil and gas industry of both countries fears that moves to protect the bears may end up being used as a lever to regulate carbon emissions.

Yesterday's ruling only came after environmentalists filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing a decision, and before a deadline of today.

President Bush is publicly committed to the rapid expansion of oil and gas exploration along the Alaskan coast, even at the cost of the polar bears’ habitat and opposes any moves to combat global warming through regulation.

But faced with overwhelming scientific evidence that already rapid loss of sea ice is accelerating, Mr Kempthorne said and he no choice but to declare the species threatened. "Sea ice is vital to polar bears' survival," he said. "This has been a difficult decision. But in light of the scientific record, and the restraints of the inflexible law that guides me," he had made "the only decision I can make."

He warned that he was limiting the impact of the decision on energy development and other climate related activities: "This listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting," Mr Kempthorne said.

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