Washington The Interior Department declared the polar bear a threatened species Wednesday because of the loss of Arctic sea ice but also cautioned the decision should not be viewed as a path to address global warming.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne cited dramatic declines in sea ice over the last three decades and projections of continued losses, meaning, he said, that the polar bear is a species likely to be in danger of extinction in the near future.
But Kempthorne said it would be "wholly inappropriate" to use the protection of the bear to reduce greenhouse gases, or to broadly address climate change.
The Endangered Species Act "is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy," said Kempthorne, reflecting a view recently expressed by President Bush.
The department outlined a set of administrative actions and limits to how it planned to protect the bear with its new status so that it would not have wide-ranging adverse impact on economic activities from building power plants to oil and gas exploration.
"This listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting," said Kempthorne.
Kempthorne, at a news conference, was armed with slides and charts showing the dramatic decline in sea ice over the last 30 years and projections that the melting of ice - a key habitat for the bear - would continue and may even quicken.
He cited conclusions by department scientists that sea ice loss will likely result in two-thirds of the polar bears disappearing by mid-century. Studies last year by the U.S. Geological Survey suggested 15,000 bears - of an estimated 25,000 in the wild - would be lost in coming decades with those in the western Hudson Bay area of Alaska and Canada under the greatest stress.
But when asked how the bear will be afforded greater protection, Dale Hall, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had difficulty coming up with examples. Better management of bear habitat on shore and making sure bears aren't threatened by people including hunters, more studies on bear population trends and their feeding habits were among the areas mentioned.
"I don't want to prejudge recommendations for (bear) management," said Hall, whose agency administers the Endangered Species Act.
Environmentalists were already mapping out plans to file lawsuits challenging the restrictive measures outlined by Kempthorne.
"They're trying to make this a threatened listing in name only with no change in today's impacts and that's not going to fly," said Jamie Rappaport Clark of Defenders of Wildlife and a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director.