Interior secretary skips hearing to explain polar bear delay

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne was a no-show Wednesday in front of a Senate committee seeking an explanation for why his agency has been slow to decide whether to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Kempthorne, summoned by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, refused to testify in front of the panel. Instead, he sent a letter and spoke personally to several of the committee members. He also pledged to testify once he issues a decision, now three months late.

"Careful deliberation will not imperil the survival of the polar bear, it will better ensure that the decision is legally sound and based upon the best available science and the requirements of the law," Kempthorne wrote.

But that wasn't enough for the committee's chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who said she was "disappointed" with Kempthorne's behavior, especially since he'd been on the panel while in the Senate.

Boxer scolded Kempthorne's record on endangered-species designations, pointing out that he had yet to classify a species as endangered during his tenure as interior secretary.

"The Bush administration does not have the right or the discretion to decide to not carry out the law," Boxer said. "I guess maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I always learned that when laws are passed by Congress and signed by the president, they must be obeyed. But that's not what's happening here."

Every step of the process in listing the bears as threatened has required environmentalists to file lawsuits to persuade the administration to act, said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity. There's still time to do something about the bears, Siegel said, "but the window to act is now."

Some Republican members of the panel said they were concerned about the effects of listing polar bears, since the animals are losing their habitat because of global warming, caused by worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

The hearing wasn't about "protecting the bear," said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee. Rather, it was about using the Endangered Species Act to "achieve global warming policy that special-interest groups cannot otherwise achieve through the legislative process."

"The ESA is simply not equipped to regulate economy-wide greenhouse gases, nor does the Fish and Wildlife Service have the expertise to be a pollution-control agency," he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which the Interior Department oversees, first proposed in 2007 to list polar bears, at the prompting of environmental groups. The agency was scheduled to issue a decision on polar bears at the beginning of January but postponed it because its scientists needed more time to analyze studies from the U.S. Geological Survey. The studies showed that as many as two-thirds of the world's polar bear population could disappear by mid-century as their habitat melts, leaving a small population of bears in the Canadian Arctic.