Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne said today he will list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
That will provide polar bears with a variety of protective measures from the federal government, though under the terms outlined by Kempthorne there will be provisions to allow continuing exploration for oil and gas in the Arctic seas where the bears live.
The debate over the bears had become one of the most heated environmental issues of recent years. Advocacy groups had called for the bears to be protected, not from hunters or developers, but on the grounds that their habitat was threatened by global warming.
"I wish the decision could be otherwise," said Kempthorne at a Washington news conference. He said the decision would do nothing to prevent the warming of the climate.
"I believe this decision is most consistent with the record and legal standards of the Endangered Species Act, perhaps the least flexible law the Congress has ever enacted," he said.
He cited evidence from the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies, predicting that without action, melting sea ice in the Arctic might wipe out two thirds of the polar bear population by 2050.
It was clear that nobody was entirely happy with the decision.
"It's a really important acknowledgment by the Bush administration of the threat posed by global warming. It's important to have the polar bear listed as 'threatened' as a starting point, but it does not go nearly far enough," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based environmental group.
Opponents of today's action argued that the Endangered Species Act is a clumsy tool for protecting the environment because it places needless restrictions in an area where a species lives. It is also not designed as a way to protect against climate change, they said.
"We're prepared to sue, quite frankly," said Robin Rivett of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based group that argues against government regulation and what it calls "extremists" at environmental groups.
"We take a very strong position that the polar bears are not threatened," he said. "It's a misguided decision."
Environmental advocates at the Center for Biological Diversity had originally petitioned the Interior Department in 2005 to protect the bears. In public statements it argued, "The rapid warming of the Arctic and melting of the sea ice pose an overwhelming threat to the polar bear, already suffering starvation, drowning and population declines as its sea-ice habitat melts away."
Advocates who have followed the case say the issue went back and forth within the Interior Department, with some staff members arguing that the bears were clearly threatened by melting sea ice and others saying it would be politically dangerous to invoke the Endangered Species Act.
They argued that protecting bears in this way might, in effect, push the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into the position of regulating the emissions of carbon dioxide from cars and industry — something that clearly does not fall under its jurisdiction.
Kempthorne said today that he would make sure that does not happen.
"The president is absolutely right," he said. "Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears, but it should not open the door to use the E.S.A. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."