Washington, DC April 1, 2010 — In what many Democratic strategists are hailing as a pragmatic political masterstroke, the Obama administration today announced that it would be granting full Endangered Species Act protections to the front half of the beleaguered polar bear.
The polar bear, Ursus maritimus, is the world’s largest bear species. Conservationists had feared that given threats to the bear from climate change, Arctic oil development and poaching, the species might have gone extinct as early as 2050 without full ESA protection.
“This is a landmark decision,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who made the announcement during a keynote speech at a conference of recreational mountaintop removal enthusiasts. “By granting full protection to the anterior portion of the Arctic’s most picturesque predator, we signal that hope and change are coming to the Arctic wilderness. This truly is a great day in the annals of wildlife protection.”
In March 2009, Salazar announced that he would be leaving in place exemptions on polar bear protections that excluded greenhouse gases and oil development from regulation. Today’s announcement marks a partial reversal of that decision, which had been criticized by environmental groups.
The new polar bear rule includes a compromise provision that exempts the hind ends of polar bears from any federal regulation whatsoever. The Obama administration has been under considerable pressure from industry groups to establish bounties on what today’s announcement refers to as “Ursus maritimus posterior exclusions.” In informal remarks to reporters after his address, Secretary Salazar said that the bounty issue is being negotiated among a number of stakeholders, including state game departments and the Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’re probably looking at a final agreement in the low four figures,” Salazar told reporters. In response, hunting groups are reported to be gearing up for the first day of Polar Bear Posterior End hunting season, scheduled for Monday.
Protection for the hind ends of polar bears had been widely opposed by a number of industrial groups, who claimed that the bears used those ends to rub up against valuable oil industry infrastructure, often clogging valves and other instruments with their thick winter fur. Hunters claimed that polar bears’ hind ends constituted a major source of effluents in otherwise unspoiled lands. As a result of 11th-hour negotiations among industry and Interior staffers, the Fish and Wildlife Service will exempt from any ESA protection — in the words of today’s announcement — “all parts of the bear posterior to a line drawn between the fifth thoracic vertebra and the left and right post-scapular fossae.”
“We’re protecting the heart and mind of the polar bear,” said Salazar. “This is a day all of us who love wildlife can be proud of.”
Reaction among conservatives to today’s announcement was swift and unrestrainedly negative. “This is just another example of the Obama administration’s overreaching,” said House minority leader John Boehner. “A majority of Americans do not want to be eaten by the large, murderous carnivores that the radical environmentalists want to cram down our throats. Stalin loved bears too.”
Reaction from environmentalists was generally positive. “The front half of the great conservationist Teddy Roosevelt is immortalized on Mount Rushmore,” said the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope. “Now the front halves of North America’s largest carnivore will be protected in perpetuity. The Sierra Club applauds this bold move by the administration. However, there is still work to be done. Many important sections of our irreplaceable polar bears are still unprotected. We’re urging our members to tell Secretary Salazar to extend full protection to an additional 17% of the polar bear midsection.”
“We’d like to see the whole bear protected, of course,” Pope continued. “But we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
It is likely that a few in the environmental community will be less sanguine. Among likely opponents is the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the Bush administration twice to force Interior to take action on a petition to list the entire polar bear under ESA. Attempts to reach spokespeople from the Center were unsuccessful. In a development possibly related to today’s announcement, neighbors of the Center’s Tucson office reported that paramedics were treating several senior CBD staffers for severe keyboard-related forehead injuries.