Polar bears

By Kim 

SEATTLE — The federal law listing polar bears
 as a threatened species was upheld Friday by a federal appeals court, which rejected 
arguments that it is wrong to impose far-ranging and possibly costly protections for a
 species that remains fairly abundant in many regions of the Arctic.
Concluding that attacks on the listing "amount to nothing more than competing view
s on policy and science," the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., upheld
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2008 decision to protect the animals because the
dramatic loss of sea ice leaves them likely to become in danger of extinction.
There are still about 25,000 polar bears around the world, many of them in relatively
 healthy populations, but scientists fear that climate change is rapidly affecting their
ability to sustain those numbers after the next half-century.
Polar bears depend on sea ice as a platform for hunting and often use it for denning.
 Its loss near the productive, shallow waters close to shore could soon leave the animals
 in danger of steep decline, federal authorities concluded in their listing decision, which
 was upheld by the court.
The issue has been highly controversial, particularly in Alaska, where polar bears live
 side by side with the state's powerful oil and gas industry. The animal's protection
under the Endangered Species Act means much more formidable hurdles for obtaining
 oil drilling permits, especially as offshore operations expand into the Beaufort and
Chukchi seas.
"There are two competing visions of the future of Alaska," the Alaska Department of
 Law said when it filed its brief in the case. "Ours is one in which responsible resource
 development proceeds apace and protections remain in place for wildlife, including
 polar bears, which we treasure. The other vision is one in which Alaska's resources
 are locked up, our economy languishes, we lose population and we lack the capacity
 to maintain schools, roads, bridges, harbors and airports.... It is imperative that this
latter vision does not become a reality."
The state, along with the international hunting group Safari Club International, argued
 that the Fish and Wildlife Service should have taken into account the fact that polar
 bear populations are healthy in some places, especially in northeast Canada, where
steps are being taken to boost their numbers that could negate the dire forecasts.
"For the first time under the ESA, the service … listed a species based on uncertain
 predictions for future threats of habitat loss, rather than on actual observed
population declines or sufficiently likely threats," the appellants said in their brief.
"Moreover, this listing represents the first time the service has listed a species that
 is at an all-time historical high in population numbers … and is listed solely because
 of forecasted future trends."
The appeals court found that the government had established broad scientific
 agreement that the species' numbers indeed are headed into a downward spiral
and said the agency also met its other procedural requirements for designating a
"threatened" status.
Conservationists had initially sued to force the agency to go even further and
 consider polar bears fully endangered, but they lost that fight in the district
court and didn't appeal.
Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity, which originally petitioned
to have polar bears listed, said there is little likelihood of a successful appeal.
"So for practical purposes, the listing of the polar bear is final, and really no
longer under any serious threat from these challenges," she said.
Still, environmental groups say they are frustrated that the Fish and Wildlife
Service has exempted greenhouse gases from consideration as one of the
 prohibited threats to polar bears, now that they are protected. That was
 accomplished by a special rule that considers only those threats that occur
 within the polar bear's range, not, for example, coal-fired power plants in
 the continental U.S.
"Beyond this ruling, we also think it's important that we get serious about
 dealing with climate change and address the other threats to the species,
 like over-hunting and toxic contamination," added Rebecca Riley, an attorney
 for the Natural Resources Defense Council.