USFWS Clarifies Listing Polar Bear as “Threatened”

Debate about whether animal species should be officially listed
as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)
becomes heated, emotional, contentious. We see regular discussions
about wolves, mice, birds, polar bears and more.

Wolves and polar bears, in particular, are on the front burner
right now. On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)
filed papers in U.S. District Court clarifying the legal basis upon
which it has listed the polar bear as threatened rather than
endangered.

Below is a release from USFWS, explaining its position. It makes
interesting reading, not just on the specific case of the polar
bear, but for background and perspective as news continues to
develop on wolves and other species.

News release from USFWS:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has clarified for the
U.S. District Court in Washington, DC the legal basis for its 2008
decision to protect the polar bear as a “threatened” species under
the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and confirmed for the Court that
the designation was consistent with the Service’s longstanding
science-based practices in determining the appropriate listing
status for a given species. The “threatened” designation of the
polar bear under the ESA does not change as a result of today’s
Court filing.

The ESA defines an endangered species as one that “is in danger
of extinction,” while a threatened species is one which “is likely
to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future …”
Following a hearing in a case challenging the Service’s 2008
decision, the Court requested further explanation of how the
Service interpreted those definitions in determining that the polar
bear was “threatened” versus “endangered.” The Department of
Justice today filed with the Court a memorandum from the Service
providing that further explanation.

“The Service arrived at the 2008 decision to list the polar bear as
‘threatened’ following careful analysis of the best scientific
information, as required by the ESA,” said Acting Service Director
Rowan Gould. “We were pleased to clarify for the Court the process
by which the Service made the determination and are confident it
was and is the appropriate status.”

In the memorandum filed with the Court, the Service explained how
its biologists had concluded in 2008 that the polar bear was not
facing sudden and catastrophic threats, was still a widespread
species that had not been restricted to a critically small range or
critically low numbers, and was not suffering ongoing major
reductions in numbers, range, or both. Accordingly, they were not
considered in danger of extinction at the time of the listing
determination, i.e., not warranting listing as an “endangered”
species at that time. However, the Service also found in 2008 that
the polar bear was facing serious threats in the foreseeable future
from the projected destruction, modification or curtailment of its
sea ice habitat or range due to global climate change and the lack
of sufficient regulatory mechanisms available to alleviate this
threat. The Service concluded that the incremental loss of sea ice
habitat over time would limit the ability of polar bears to satisfy
essential life-history requirements and would result in the bears
likely being in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future.
Accordingly, the Service determined that it was appropriate to list
polar bears as a “threatened” species.

Threatened species receive most of the same regulatory protections
under the ESA as endangered species, including the requirement that
federal agencies ensure that their actions are not likely to
jeopardize the continued existence of the species or destroy or
adversely modify designated critical habitat. In addition to the
ESA, the polar bear is protected by the Marine Mammal Protection
Act (MMPA), which provides equal and in some cases more stringent
protections, as well as international treaties such as the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild
Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The ESA provides a critical safety net for America’s native fish,
wildlife and plants and to date has prevented the extinction of
hundreds of imperiled species across the nation, as well as
promoting the recovery of many others. The Service’s priority is to
make implementation of the ESA less complex, less contentious and
more effective. To learn more about the Service’s implementation of
the ESA, go to http://www.fws.gov/endangered/.

 

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