Senate Keeps Focus on Polar Bear

Monisha Bansal | Senior Staff Writer | Monday, March 24, 2008

Senate Keeps Focus on Polar Bear

( - Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the Department of Interior has been "foot-dragging" on listing the polar bear as an endangered species and has asked the department's secretary to appear before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Boxer, chair of the committee, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne late Thursday, asking him to testify at the beginning of April.

"In a hearing before the Committee on January 30, 2008, [Fish and Wildlife Service] Director Dale Hall admitted the agency's failure to comply with the Endangered Species Act," she wrote. "He accepted responsibility for this failure and stated that making the final determination would take around thirty days.

"We are long past the timeframe that even Director Hall discussed at the hearing," Boxer said.

The Department of the Interior indicated in January that it would not meet the Jan. 9, 2008 deadline for classifying the bear, and it asked for 30 additional days to consider.

Environmentalists, however, were concerned that the listing was delayed to allow the sale of polar bear habitat along the Chukchi Sea for oil and gas exploration. The land was leased to Royal Dutch Shell on Feb. 6.

"As Secretary of Interior, you are charged with following and carrying-out the law and making decisions based upon science," Boxer told Kempthorne.

"It is now nearly three months since your department was required by law to make a final decision regarding listing the polar bear. At the same time, I question why your Department did not delay approval of a major oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea, where about 20 percent of the world's polar bears live," she added.

"I am concerned about the potential impacts of these oil and gas related activities in the Chukchi Sea on the polar bear," she said. "Listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act will provide for important additional protections before further actions are taken that would affect these magnificent creatures."

"In light of the serious concerns for the future of the polar bear and the department's failure to comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA)," she added, "it is critically important that you appear before the Committee to explain in a public forum the actions and plans of the department."

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the committee, however, said, "Unfortunately, the polar bear is simply a pawn in a much bigger game of chess.

"It has become clear that listing the bear as a threatened species is not about protecting the bear but about using the ESA to achieve global warming policy that special interest groups cannot otherwise achieve through the legislative process," he told Cybercast News Service.

"Implementation of ESA should be driven by science, not litigation," Inhofe said. "As we have heard in testimony before the committee, all too often the act's strict timelines make it nearly impossible for the scientists to do their job.

"Dale Hall, director of FWS, recently testified before the Committee that he needed extra time to review additional science before making the final decision on the listing of the polar bear," said Inhofe. "I think it is important that we get the science right instead of adhering to a timeline set by a judge."

Inhofe acknowledged, however, that "these delays cannot continue."

"As senators, we should make it our responsibility to resolve these failings in the ESA," he said. "It would be my hope, therefore, that Chairman Boxer's alarm regarding a three- month delay over one species will provide an opening for the Committee to begin working to improve the ESA."

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