SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge ordered the Bush administration to quit stalling and publish its long-overdue final determination on whether the polar bear is a threatened or endangered species within two weeks. The bears require protection under the Endangered Species Act, environmentalists argued, because their numbers are threatened by global warming and oil operations in Alaska's Chukchi Sea.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace petitioned the government to list polar bears as endangered, citing data on arctic climate and sea ice trends that are rapidly shrinking the bears' primary habitat for feeding, breeding and denning. The bears can also be killed incidentally by oil industry operations in the Chukchi Sea, where one-fifth of polar bears live.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken granted plaintiffs' motion to compel the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior to make their final listing determination - a decision that has been put off since mid-January.
On Jan. 9, 2007, defendants issued a proposed rule to list the polar bear as a threatened species. The proposal described the polar bear as the "largest of the living bear species" that is "evolutionarily adapted to life on sea ice." That sea ice, plaintiffs claim, is rapidly disappearing.
They claim defendants violated federal law by not issuing the final listing within one year of publishing the proposal. In early January, defendants publicly announced that they would issue the final listing in 30 days, but they never did. Instead, defendants urged the court to extend the deadline to June 30, saying they needed more time to make a complicated decision.
"Defendants have been in violation of the law requiring them to publish the listing determination for nearly 120 days," Judge Wilken wrote. "Other than the general complexity of finalizing the rule, defendants offer no specific facts that would justify the existing delay, much less further delay."
Wilken added that the operations in Alaska "could jeopardize the continued existence of the species" if polar bears are not protected by law.
She ordered the defendants to publish the final listing on or before May 15.