WASHINGTON — Global warming will lead to declining polar-bear populations, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged Friday, but the Interior Department will let stand a Bush administration rule that proposes to manage the threatened animals without taking into account greenhouse gases that heat the planet and threaten their sea ice habitat.
Salazar announced Friday that he'll keep in place the Bush administration rule limiting government scientists from looking at anything other than the Alaska habitat of polar bears as they develop wildlife management plans.
Environmentalists had sought a change to the rule, which effectively limited federal regulators from considering the effects of greenhouse gas emissions as they worked to address the bears' loss of habitat in Alaska.
The rule was announced last May when former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne determined that under the Endangered Species Act, the bears are threatened. However, Kempthorne warned at the time that the Bush administration didn't want polar bears to be used as a "back door" for setting climate-change policy and issued the rule to keep greenhouse gas emissions from consideration.
On Friday, President Barack Obama's Interior Department reluctantly agreed with the Bush administration, saying it's scientifically impossible to use the Endangered Species Act to regulate the greenhouse gases that contribute to the destruction of the bears' habitat. The emissions from a cement plant in Georgia, for example, can't be tied directly to the precipitous decline of sea ice, Salazar said.
Slowing global warming by capping greenhouse gas emissions will have to be addressed with comprehensive climate-change legislation supported by the administration, said Tom Strickland, the assistant interior secretary for fish and wildlife and parks.
"On a parallel track, this administration, in contrast to (the) previous administration, is actively engaged in trying to get a comprehensive climate-change bill passed," Strickland said.
Environmentalists who've been instrumental in seeing the polar bear listed as a threatened species said they were disappointed with the decision. Obama's new administration lacked the courage to address global warming using the framework of the Endangered Species Act, said Bill Snape, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, which has an ongoing lawsuit to overturn the rule.
"It sweeps under the rug the number one cause of the species decline in the first place, which is greenhouse gases from the Lower 48," Snape said.
"I think that it's disturbing he has taken a position that is Bush-like in that he's decided he doesn't even want to ask the question, he doesn't even want his scientists to examine the question: To what extent are greenhouse gases in the Lower 48 contributing to the melt of Arctic ice?" Snape said.
Congressional Democrats also criticized the decision.
"I disagree with the Department of Interior's decision to limit the tools we have available under the Endangered Species Act to save the polar bear from extinction," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin applauded the decision, saying the state also wants to "preserve and protect the polar bear using the best possible tools" but didn't think that greenhouse gas emissions should be a factor.
Palin's administration fought the designation from the beginning. It argued while the Interior Department was considering listing the bears that federal government scientists went too far using climate models to predict declines in habitat and population.
"This is a clear victory for Alaska," Palin said.
Salazar's announcement also elicited praise from oil and gas interests, who feared that taking greenhouse gas emissions into consideration would introduce more regulatory hurdles for development in Alaska and potentially elsewhere in the United States.
The Endangered Species Act simply isn't the proper mechanism for controlling carbon emissions, said Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute.
"Instead, we need a comprehensive, integrated energy and climate strategy to address this complex, global challenge," Gerard said. "This decision serves to protect the polar bear while providing greater regulatory certainty not only to the oil and natural gas industry but also to all U.S. manufacturers."
Salazar emphasized Friday that the Interior Department wasn't turning its back on polar bears or the question of global warming.
"To see the polar bear's habitat melting and an iconic species threatened is an environmental tragedy of the modern age," Salazar said. "This administration is fully committed to the protection and recovery of the polar bear."
Salazar said he'd reviewed the current rule, received the recommendations of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and decided that the best course of action for protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act is to "wisely implement the current rule, monitor its effectiveness and evaluate our options for improving the recovery of the species."
Salazar also noted that the White House budget released Thursday includes an increase of $7.4 million for polar bear conservation. Of that, $3.2 million will go to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The money includes a $1.5 million increase for the agencies that must be consulted before oil and gas projects proceed in polar bear territory. It also helps prepare for a Polar Bear Conservation Plan to guide U.S. and international work to conserve and improve the status of the species, Salazar said.
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