BOISE, Idaho — Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne drew criticism from both sides of the polar bear debate Wednesday when he listed the arctic predator as a threatened species.
Kempthorne followed the law and followed the science that links the loss of the polar bear¹s habitat, sea ice to global warming from increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But he proposed changes in the rules that would keep the federal government from regulating greenhouse gases with the Endangered Species Act.
"He was on the horns of a dilemma and he finessed it," said John Freemuth, a Boise State University professor and fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy.
The Bush Administration has drawn widespread criticism for the way it has handled the Endangered Species Act. Some of the harshest criticism came about how political appointees used their power to skew the science used to make decisions such as whether to list a species.
The U.S. fish and Wildlife Service has been ordered by judges to reconsider several endangered species decision specifically because of the rewriting of scientific listing documents by former deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, Julie MacDonald, an engineer and a lawyer.
"If Julie McDonald was still around she'd say the science was dubious," Freemuth said.
Kempthorne was deeply involved with the decision top Interior officials said. He worked closely with Interior scientists as made the link between global warming and the loss of sea ice.
"I felt the science was there and the right decision, as tough as it was, was to list the bear," Kempthorne said.
The listing was immediately challenged by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a group that represents private property owners. They vowed to reverse the listing in court.
Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young said polar bear numbers have risen since 1950 from 15,000 to 20,000.
"This decision represents an assault on sound science and common sense," Young said.
On the other side Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, was unwilling to give Kempthorne credit for allowing the listing to go forward.
"Until now he has not listed a single endangered species," Suckling said. "That is the worst record in the Endangered Species Act."
But Suckling said the decision "opens the barn door" for the use of the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse gases, the very action Kempthorne hopes to avoid. The issue, like most with the Endangered Species Act will be decided in court.
That's why Kempthorne remains an advocate for reforming the law, which is the toughest environmental law ever written. He wants less emphasis on listing and more on recovery of species already on the list.
Today the law's teeth are triggered when a species is listed. Other laws require federal agencies to provide protection "where practicable." The ESA left those two words out.
"It¹s an inflexible law," Kempthorne said.