Major Polar Bear Protection Decision Looms

Polar Bear CBS

The heated debate over global warming has ensnared an animal that can survive in the world's harshest conditions -- the polar bear -- putting it at the center of a fierce political tug-of-war between environmentalists and business interests over protecting the polar bear's habitat and drilling for oil.

As CBS News Science and Technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg explains, the Interior Department has until Thursday to rule on whether the polar bear should be placed on the Endangered Species List.

"The Bush administration has its legal obligation to finalize its decision on the polar bear," says Sen. Barbara Boxer (D, Calif.), head of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, "and we all have a moral obligation to see that they do it."

There are an estimated 20,000 - 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic region, but environmentalists warn that rising temperatures and disappearing sea ice will cause a 30 percent decline in their population over the next 50 years.

"We are now beginning to see declines in a number of populations of polar bears, and that's because of global warming," says John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation. "Effectively, the polar bears are starving."

But The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, argues that putting the polar bear on the endangered species list might do more harm than good.

"There's a real question," says the foundation's Ben Lieberman, "whether the polar bear is threatened in the first place, and the Endangered Species Act, the way it would work, would actually do quite a bit of economic damage, and may or may not actually impact the bears."

The polar bear would be the first animal to be listed as endangered or threatened as a result of global warming -- which could mean two things, some observers say. One -- some northern exploration for oil could be stalled, possibly leading to even higher energy prices at home. And two -- environmental groups could be empowered to sue any company or governmental agency contributing to the increase of greenhouse gases.

But the Wildlife Federation disputes that theory.

"What we're expecting the Endangered Species Act to be used for," says Kostyack, "is something that's much more direct, which is these immediate threats to the polar bear in their habitat from oil and gas development."

The polar bear is an iconic symbol of the Arctic, Sieberg notes, "so, in some ways, critics are saying, it's just being used to try to limit greenhouse gases. But environmentalists are very outspoken. They say it is absolutely essential to look at this issue and to try to do something about their habitat, which is the disappearing ice."
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