Judge orders polar bear decision by May 15

Tue Apr 29, 2008 3:47pm EDT
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By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration must decide by May 15 whether polar bears in the United States should be listed as threatened by climate change under the Endangered Species Act, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday, barring further delay.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland, California, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs -- the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace -- finding the U.S. government broke the law by missing the deadline for a polar bear decision by four months.

The Interior Department, which has responsibility for endangered species, was supposed to issue a decision in January but postponed that for a month. Most recently, it asked for a delay until June 30 so its lawyers could finish reviewing and revising the decision.

Wilken denied this request.

"Defendants offer no specific facts that would justify the existing delay, much less further delay," she said.

"To allow defendants more time would violate the mandated listing deadlines under the ESA (Endangered Species Act) and congressional intent that time is of the essence in listing threatened species."

The government must decide whether to classify polar bears living in Alaska as threatened, meaning they might face a risk of extinction in the future. If it does, then it must develop a plan to stave off the threat, a complicated process that could take years. The action would not affect polar bears living in other Arctic countries, such as Russia or Canada.

Environmental groups have pressed the U.S. government to decide on the polar bears' fate, arguing that the disappearance of their icy habitat due to global warming threatens their existence.   Continued...

<p>A polar bear swims under water at St-Felicien Wildlife Zoo in St-Felicien, Quebec March 6, 2008. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger</p>