Government has till 2010 to designate polar bear habitat

WASHINGTON — Environmental groups and the Bush administration reached a partial court settlement on Monday that requires the Department of Interior to designate critical habitat for polar bears by June 30, 2010.

The Department of Interior in May listed the polar bear as threatened by global warming, but didn't designate any critical habitat protection. The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force the government to do more for the bears' long-term survival under the Endangered Species Act.

"This agreement will provide an additional layer of protection," said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity. Siegel was the lead author of an earlier petition that called on the government to list polar bears for protection under the law.

When the Department of Interior announced the listing in May, Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said that government scientists predicted that the sea ice the bears need would continue to melt at an alarming rate. That was the first such designation for an animal that's losing habitat because of global warming.

At that time, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said the listing disappointed her and she was concerned that federal actions would "threaten the viable, productive and environmentally responsible oil and gas industry along Alaska's North Slope."

In August, Alaska sued Kempthorne in an attempt to reverse his decision on polar bears. Palin said that scientists' predictions about summer sea ice decline were unreliable. Industry groups also have filed suits seeking to overturn the polar bear protections.

When the government designates critical habitat, federal agencies are prohibited from doing anything that would harm the habitat enough to interfere with the recovery of the species. The agreement on Monday in a case before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California set the 2010 deadline for a final rule designating polar bear habitat. A proposed rule will be issued next year, and then there will be a period of public comment and hearings.

"We are committed to meeting the requirements of important conservation statutes such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act," said Department of Interior press secretary Shane Wolfe. "We appreciate that we were able to reach an agreement on these particular issues."

Siegel said it also was important to remove other threats to polar bears' habitat that occur along with global warming. "It's essential that we protect the areas where polar bears live, not open them up for oil development."

The May listing of polar bears as a threatened species provides some habitat protection, but not as much as a critical habitat designation, Siegel said.

The partial settlement agreement also sets a deadline of March 31, 2010, for the Interior Department to issue guidelines about non-lethal ways to deal with bears that threaten public safety, as required by the Marine Mammals Protection Act.

However, it didn't settle other suits the Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups have filed. Those groups want the government to list polar bears as endangered, rather than threatened, because that designation would give the bears more legal protections. The Department of Interior also claimed that the listing didn't mean that greenhouse gas emissions would be regulated when federal agencies figure how to protect polar bear habitat.

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