Side profile of a polar bear

The polar bear's listing as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act was a watershed moment--the first time a species was protected solely because of the threat from global warming.

© Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

9/24/2018 1:23:30 PM

Stand up for the Endangered Species Act

By Kassie Siegel

This year is the tenth anniversary of the polar bear’s protection as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. 

I still vividly remember anxiously awaiting a decision that could change environmental policy forever. I was in my office with butterflies in my stomach and a film crew in the next room ready to record my reaction. When the news hit that the George W. Bush administration would protect the bear under the Endangered Species Act due to climate change, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. 

As an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, I fought for that protection for more than three years, an effort supported by our conservation partners at Polar Bears International. 

The polar bear’s listing was a watershed decision. It was the first time a species was protected solely because of the threat from global warming. It was an acknowledgment from the federal government that climate change is real, urgent, and dangerous enough to wipe out a species. And it provided the polar bear with desperately needed protections while the world struggles to cut greenhouse gas pollution sharply and swiftly enough to fight the climate crisis and save the Arctic sea ice. 

But today, I’m more worried than ever about polar bears and other climate-threatened wildlife – and it’s not just because the current White House is the capital of climate denial.

Recently, the Trump administration proposed changes that would drastically weaken the Endangered Species Act. These changes would ensure that hundreds of imperiled species awaiting protection — like the monarch butterfly and the American wolverine — either never get safeguards, or if they are listed, receive substantially less protection. 

The proposals would slam a wrecking ball into the most crucial protections for our most endangered wildlife.

Everyone knows that it is not possible to save imperiled species without protecting the areas where they live, yet the new rules contain several provisions slashing protections for species’ “critical habitat.” First, the government would ignore harms to a critical habitat unless they impact the entirety of an animal’s habitat — ignoring the fact that “death by a thousand cuts” is the most common way wildlife declines toward extinction. 

Several of the changes are targeted directly at the polar bear, including the proposal to prohibit designation of critical habitat for species threatened by climate change. Allowing the federal government to turn a blind eye to climate change will be a death sentence for polar bears and hundreds of other animals and plants imperiled by climate disruption.

The changes would also gut wildlife agencies’ ability to designate critical habitat in unoccupied areas needed for recovery. Even though most endangered species currently occupy small fractions of their historic range, those areas would effectively be precluded from ever helping a species recover. Of course, if we are going to save wildlife, we have to let them return to places they used to roam.

The proposal would also slash the number of species protected in the first place by encouraging the use of economic information, rather than science, to make listing decisions. And finally, other provisions would strip virtually all protections species currently receive when they are listed as “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Endangered Species Act is the world’s most effective environmental law, with a 99 percent success record of preventing the extinction of species listed to date. But if the Trump administration’s proposed regulations had been in place in the 1970s, this would not be the case, and animals from the California condor to the Yellowstone grizzly might be extinct today.

If these new rules are finalized now, we will be one step closer to losing the polar bear and hundreds of other species forever.

In an era of accelerating warming and climate disruption, polar bears need our help now more than ever. If you're a U.S. citizen, please add your voice to the chorus telling the Trump administration to keep its paws off the Endangered Species Act by speaking up and contacting your representatives.

Kassie Siegel is the director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. In 2005 she spearheaded the successful effort to gain the polar bear protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act due to threats from global warming.

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