Judge Sets Deadline For Polar Bear Decision

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At the urging of environmentalists concerned with global warming's effect on the polar bear population, a federal judge set a 16-day deadline for the Bush administration to publish a long-overdue final determination on whether the polar bear is a threatened or endangered species.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace petitioned the government to list polar bears as endangered, citing data on arctic climate and sea ice trends that are rapidly shrinking the bears' critical habitat.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken granted plaintiffs' motion to compel the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Services and the Department of the Interior to make their final listing determination, which they should have made more than a year ago.

On Jan. 9, 2007, defendants issued a proposed rule to list the polar bear as a threatened species. The proposal described the polar bear as the "largest of the living bear species" that is "evolutionarily adapted to life on sea ice." It also noted that the bears "rely on sea ice as their primary habitat for feeding, breeding and denning."

Environmentalists argue that this habitat is rapidly disappearing due to global warming. They also claim defendants violated federal law by not issuing the final listing within one year of publishing the proposal. In early January, defendants publicly announced that they would issue the final listing in 30 days, but they never did. Instead, defendants urged the court to extend the deadline to June 30, saying they needed more time to make a complicated decision.

"Defendants have been in violation of the law requiring them to publish the listing determination for nearly 120 days," Judge Wilken wrote. "Other than the general complexity of finalizing the rule, defendants offer no specific facts that would justify the existing delay, much less further delay."

She ordered the agency to publish the final listing on or before May 15. 

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