Secretary Salazar: Save the polar bear now

The Obama administration has restored one important protection for species in danger of extinction.  But for the sake of the endangered polar bear, it may need a push from the public to go the rest of the way.

As we all know, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was designed to protect endangered species from going extinct, as well as to preserve the habitats and ecosystems they rely on for survival.

With two separate and drastically misguided last-minute regulations, the outgoing Bush administration effectively gutted the ESA.  There’s really no other word for it than gutted.  The Bush Admin changed Section 7 of the ESA, which originally required federal agencies to consult government wildlife experts before approving or starting a project that has the potential to harm an endangered species. In what has become known as the “self-consultation” regulation, the Bush changes to Section 7 allowed agencies to consult themselves instead of outside experts. In other words, no meaningful oversight by wildlife experts was required.

And when listing the polar bear as an endangered species under the ESA late last year, the Bush Admin enacted the “4(d) rule,” a special rule that exempts global warming from the list of threats the feds have to consider when planning a project that might further endanger the polar bear or its Arctic habitat, even though global warming is the biggest threat to polar bears right now.

In March, President Obama signed legislation that gives Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar the authority to immediately rescind these reckless regulations. We recently had some good news on this front, but there is still work for Secretary Salazar to do in order to restore the full protections of the ESA to the polar bear.

More on the bear’s plight, and what you can do, after the jump.

One of the two Bush midnight regulations that eviscerated the ESA, the Section 7 rule, was rescinded by Secretary Salazar on April 28th. This means that federal agencies must once again consult the experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service before taking any action that might imperil an animal protected under the ESA. This is great news, of course, and cause for celebration.

Unless you’re a polar bear. Polar bears are still in danger, and will be until Salazar rescinds the 4(d) rule as well, so that greenhouse gases can be assessed as threats to their survival.

Global warming is the biggest threat to polar bears because it’s melting their main habitat: the Arctic sea ice. According to data released by the National Snow and Ice Data Center on April 6th,

Including March 2009, the past six years have all had ice extent substantially lower than normal. The linear trend indicates that for the month of March, ice extent is declining by 2.7% per decade, an average of 43,000 square kilometers (16,000 square miles) of ice per year.

The reason March is important is that it’s the month when Arctic sea ice usually reaches its maximum extent for the year. (September is when it’s at its lowest.)  This year, ice extent in the Arctic was at just 5.85 million square miles in March, 3.7% below the 1979-2000 average.

Polar bears rely on Arctic sea ice for hunting and breeding grounds. Global warming is indisputably melting the Arctic. So saying that global warming doesn’t need to be considered when attempting to protect the polar bear is the same as offering them no protection at all.

Not only that, but in the absence of any overarching federal legislation to combat global warming, these types of piecemeal regulations are our best hope for limiting our greenhouse gas emissions in the short term. That’s another reason why it’s so vital that we restore the full protections afforded by the ESA – because our wellbeing is intertwined with the wellbeing of the polar bear.

So what can you do?

Well, on March 11th President Obama signed the bill that gives Secretary Salazar 60 days to rescind the reckless Bush administration regulations. That means Secretary Salazar has until May 9th to rescind the 4(d) rule, or the polar bear is doomed.

On April 22nd, Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity presented a petition with over 85,000 signatures to Secretary Salazar, calling on him to rescind the Bush regulations. Just a few days later came news that Salazar was rescinding the Section 7 regulation. Direct pressure works!

The people made their voices heard, and the Obama administration responded. So we plan to deliver the petition again on May 7th and May 8th – or until Secretary Salazar rescinds the 4(d) rule, whichever comes first.

Please sign the petition to save the polar bear before it’s too late!

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