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Polar Bears: When is an endangered species endangered?

Andrew Wetzler

Posted December 7, 2010

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Photgraph by Rennett Stowe via Creative Commons

When is an endangered species endangered?  That’s the question (and it’s a big one) that has been teed up by a recent court ruling in Washington, D.C. 

In a case brought by NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Greenpeace USA about the polar bear, the Obama Administration has argued that in order for a species to be endangered it must be faced with an “imminent” threat of extinction. We argued that the text of the Act imposed no such requirement (imminence is a factor to be considered, sure, just not the only one). Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Emmett Sullivan rejected an argument that the plain language of the Endangered Species Act requires that extinction be “imminent” before a species can be listed as endangered under the ESA. The Court ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, by December 23, 2010, to reconsider or further explain its current position.

In the context of the polar bear case, this question matters because the government's own models show that polar bears face over an 80% chance of becoming extinct by mid-Century throughout much of their range.  So, is a species facing a high probability of extinction in forty or fifty years “endangered” or merely “threatened”?  From our point of view the answer is clear.  We see polar bears as a species tied to the train tracks, and global warming is the train.  Unless we stop the train, what difference does it make if it is half a mile away or a mile and a half away? 

For other species, this question matters a great deal as well.  If imminence is the controlling factor (rather than just a factor) in making listing decisions, then there are a whole host of species that may not achieve the highest level of protection under the Endangered Species Act, particularly those imperiled by global warming.  Even more disturbingly, there are a number of species that are already listed as “endangered” which, it could be argued, wouldn’t qualify for an endangered listing under this theory.

Today a coalition of some of the largest and most influential environmental and conservation organizations in the country weighed in.  In a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, the groups urged the agencies to “reverse the interpretation of the ESA now being advanced in the polar bear case and instead clarify that a species facing a high risk of extinction is, in fact, an endangered species, even if that risk is not imminent in nature.”  The groups signing the letter included NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, the League of Conservation Voters, the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and the World Wildlife Fund.  You can read the whole thing here.

Let’s hope the Obama Administration is listening.

Polar bear and cub (NASA)

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SheilaDec 7 2010 07:57 PM

This REALLY ticks me off! Why is the US "FISH & WILDLIFE" service playing games with the ESA? Who's side are they on anyway?? -endangered is endangered!!! Imminent endangerment! yeah right! its BS! by the time the lawyers get done slicing and dicing the Endangered Species Act, Polar bears will be extinct! grrr!

Weed YaardDec 8 2010 04:50 AM

Again, we find, much to our chagrin--we who supported his candidacy--that the administration of President Obama is a 'weak reed' when it comes to matters of environmental protection and sustainability.

How disappointing (yet again).

We should have seen this, though. Obama is a city boy, born and bred, with an entire adult life spent in urban politics. Having lived his entire life within the human artifact of the city, how could he see things otherwise? How could he ever see cities' parasitism upon the landbase?

I did expect him to include many more environmentally aware advisers, though.


Andrew WetzlerDec 8 2010 07:15 AM

Thanks for your comments. In fairness, the listing of the polar bear as "threatened" instead of "endangered" is a position that the Obama Administration inherited from the Bush Administration, and this is the first serious opportunity for the the Obama Administration to consider the role that "imminence" should play in defining an "endangered" species in any sort of high-level or systematic way.

LizzyDec 8 2010 04:56 PM

Yeah, whale sanctuary means SANCTUARY! But the Japanese take what they please!!

Karen CartwrightDec 9 2010 06:11 AM

Surely this debate needs to address the issue and rather unpopular subject of Human over-population and our obsessive dependency on OIL.. If we keep breeding at the rate we are breeding - every other animal will become endagered . We are not far from this situation as far as other top predators go - we are losing them all. And if the Green Light is Given to mine for oil in Bristol Bay I really think that will signal the beginning of the end for any Eco-political power presence. It's disatrous and heartbreaking and seemingly unstoppable . OIL OIL OIL dependency - we are all responsible.

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