New polar bear rule sent to White House

WASHINGTON Tue Oct 6, 2009 4:48pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Protection for polar bears' shrinking icy habitat is the subject of a proposed rule sent to the White House by the Interior Department.

The proposed rule, "Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Critical Habitat Designation for the Polar Bear" is the latest step in a long process aimed at shielding the big white bears from the effects of climate change.

Details of the proposed rule were not immediately made public, but it was filed on Monday with the White House.

The Bush administration designated polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, on the grounds that the sea ice they use as hunting platforms is literally melting under their paws.

However, the 2008 threat listing allowed oil and gas companies to operating in the polar bear's habitat, which environmental groups pointedly criticized as a flawed understanding of the relationship between fossil fuels, climate change and the fate of Arctic wildlife.

In May, the Obama administration said it would keep a Bush-era "polar bear special rule," which weakens protection for the polar bear's habitat and plays down links between the threatened status of the species and climate change.

The rule exempts from government review all activities that occur outside the polar bears' range, which means that individual sources of greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change cannot be directly linked to the polar bear's habitat.

'ENVIRONMENTAL TRAGEDY'

Obama administration Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on May 8 that the melting of polar bear habitat is "an environmental tragedy of the modern age."

But Salazar went on to say, "The best course of action for protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act is to wisely implement the current rule, not revoke it at this time."

Polar bears depend on Arctic sea ice as a platform for hunting seals, their main prey. Malnourished polar bears have more problems reproducing and raising their young. The U.S. Geological Survey has said two-thirds of the world's polar bears -- some 16,000 -- could be gone by 2050 if predictions about diminishing Arctic sea ice hold true.

Asked about the new proposed rule, John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation said the Obama administration needs to be more "honest with the science than the previous administration."

"There is extremely strong link between climate change and the decline of the polar bear, and if we hope to conserve the polar bear for future generations, we're going to have to take some strong steps to reduce the non-climate stressors ... the chief one would be oil and gas development," Kostyack said in a telephone interview.

Arctic sea ice has declined in the last three years to its smallest area since satellite views began in 1979, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. The 2009 summer ice had grown from the previous two years but was still less than in 1979.

"It's nice to see a little recovery over the past couple years, but there's no reason to think that we're headed back to conditions seen back in the 1970s," the center's director and senior scientist, Mark Serreze said in a statement on Tuesday. "We still expect to see ice-free summers sometime in the next few decades."

(Editing by Philip Barbara)

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