WASHINGTON Polar bears were listed on Wednesday as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act because their sea ice habitat is melting away.
But the new protection was not accompanied by any proposals to address either climate change, which environmentalists say causes the deterioration of the bears' habitat, or drilling in the Arctic for the fossil fuels that spur the climate-warming greenhouse effect.
In announcing the government's decision one day before a court-ordered deadline, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne acknowledged that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions contributed to the global warming damaging the polar bears' habitat.
"While the legal standards under the Endangered Species Act compel me to list the polar bear as threatened, I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting," he said at a briefing.
"Any real solution requires action by all major economies for it to be effective," Kempthorne said. He also noted he was taking administrative and regulatory action to ensure this decision was not "abused to make global warming policies."
The proper forum for combating climate change is among the world's major economies, Kempthorne said. The Bush administration has convened the world's worst greenhouse polluting nations in a series of international meetings.
Polar bears live only in the Arctic and depend on sea ice as a platform for hunting seals. The U.S. Geological Survey said two-thirds of the world's polar bears -- some 16,000 -- could be gone by 2050 if predictions about melting sea ice hold true.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, who differs sharply with President George W. Bush on climate change, said he supported the polar bear decision but that a lot more must be done to address the core issue.
"I think it should have happened a long time ago," said McCain, an Arizona senator. "It's clearly one of the thousands of consequences of climate change and I think that now the first step of listing the polar bear is important."
This is the first time climate change has been a factor in proposing a threatened status for any U.S. species, and was spurred on by environmentalists who claimed a limited victory in Kempthorne's announcement.
'MAJOR STEP FORWARD' WITH 'LOOPHOLES'
"Protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act is a major step forward, but the Bush administration has proposed using loopholes in the law to allow the greatest threat to the polar bear -- global warming pollution -- to continue unabated," Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement.
John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation, while gratified at the listing, saw little practical effect given the limits of Kempthorne's regulations.
"By denying a direct link between the sources of global warming pollution and the loss of the polar bears' sea ice habitat, and by denying that the polar bear will be protected from oil and gas development, they're willing to sit by and let the polar bear go extinct," Kostyack said by telephone.
The Endangered Species Act requires that decisions to protect wildlife be based solely on science, not on economic factors.
Bill Kovacs of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised the decision and its accompanying regulations, calling it a "common sense balancing" between environmental and business concerns.
Without the limiting regulations, Kovacs said, all carbon-emitters in the contiguous United States would have to go through a consultation process, which he said would have literally shut down federal activity overnight.
Canada, home to two-thirds of the world's polar bears, will not for now follow the U.S. lead in listing the animals as threatened, Environment Minister John Baird indicated.
The government of Nunavut, a territory home to most of Canada's Inuit people and which manages or co-manages some 15,000 polar bears, expressed disappointment in the U.S. decision.
"It is unfortunate the (U.S. government) has decided to disregard facts collected by those who have the greatest contact and longest history with polar bears," Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik said in a statement. "The truth is that polar bear populations are at near record levels."
(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko in Washington, David Ljunggren and Louise Egan in Ottawa; Editing by Peter Cooney)
(For more Reuters information on the environment, see blogs.reuters.com/environment/ )