WASHINGTON, D.C.--The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) expects to announce by early summer whether the polar bear is in danger of extinction. That's the word from Senator John Warner (R-VA), a member of a Senate panel that explored the topic today at a hearing boycotted by the Cabinet secretary responsible for making the decision.
DOI's Fish and Wildlife Service first proposed to put the polar bear on its endangered species list in December 2006, after it was sued by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an advocacy group. A federal judge ordered the department to decide by 9 January of this year whether to list the species. After that date came and went, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, held a hearing on 30 January to put pressure on Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to make a decision. She and others expressed concern that Kempthorne was delaying the listing of the polar bear until after the department sold leases for oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi Sea, where an Alaskan population of polar bears lives on the ice. The leases were sold for $2.7 billion on 6 February.
With no word on when the decision would be made, Boxer scheduled another hearing and invited Kempthorne, who cited ongoing lawsuits as a reason not to appear before the committee. (On 10 March, CBD and other environmental groups asked a federal court to force the department to announce a decision.) Boxer chose to proceed without her star witness.
Much of the proceedings were a rerun of the January hearing, featuring concerns about the listing, the oil and gas leases, and their implications for polar bears. The biggest news came when Warner, calling the species "America's panda bear," shared his insights into Kempthorne's plans. "I personally had two lengthy conversations with him on this subject this week," Warner told Boxer. "I was left with the impression he anticipates a decision before early summer." That was news to Boxer, who said after the hearing that Kempthorne had not indicated a timeline to her. (A DOI spokesperson later declined to comment on Warner's statement.)
The timing may be determined by a federal court. In her testimony, Kassie Siegel of CBD said that the nonprofit advocacy group has asked a federal judge in San Francisco, California, to hold a hearing on 8 May and order a final decision by 15 May. That roughly squares with Kempthorne's apparent plans.