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US Proposes Listing Polar Bears as Threatened Species

The United States is proposing to declare polar bears a threatened species because of their shrinking Arctic ice habitat. As we hear from VOA's David McAlary, analysts say the move is an unusual admission by the Bush administration that global warming is an environmental threat.

U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne says he is making the proposal because receding Arctic sea ice may be responsible for polar bear population declines. He notes that Canada's western Hudson Bay polar bear numbers have dropped 22 percent and Alaskan polar bears may be suffering the same pressures, although he says their population decline is not yet statistically significant.

"Polar bears are one of nature's ultimate survivors," he said. "They are able to live and thrive in one of the world's harshest environments, but there is concern that their habitat may literally be melting. I, like all Americans, support conservation of the polar bear and will work in partnership on measures to achieve this goal."

Kempthorne's declaration initiates a year-long scientific review to study whether the Interior Department should actually declare polar bears threatened. If it ultimately does, government agencies will be obligated by the U.S. Endangered Species Act to ensure that any action they authorize, fund, or carry out will not jeopardize polar bears or their habitat.

The U.S. government decision is the result of a suit by three environmental groups, who argued that the Bush administration was slow to respond to the polar bear's plight. The government's announcement meets a deadline ordered by the court.

Environmentalists hope that the Bush administration's concession might lead it to step up efforts to reduce emissions of the so-called greenhouse gases blamed for warming the atmosphere and oceans.

"This is a watershed decision in terms of way we deal with global warming in this country," said Kassie Siegel, a lawyer at one of the environmental organizations that sued the U.S. government, the Center for Biological Diversity. "The science of global warming in the Arctic and the impact to polar bears is so clear that not even the Bush administration can any longer deny the science. This is the first major acknowledgment from the Bush administration and it's very encouraging, because we now have to move forward very rapidly to reduce greenhouse gas pollution."

Interior Secretary Kempthorne says that if his agency's 12-month review causes him to declare the polar bear is threatened, the department will work with scientists, industry, native populations in U.S. polar bear regions, and other countries with polar bears to seek a way to save the species.

But he says specific measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are beyond the scope of the U.S. law he oversees that governs threats to species and must be implemented as part of broader national policy.