Saturday, May 17, 2008


I caught some of the PBS Newshour's reporting on the EPA's decision to propose declaring the Polar Bear "threatened" under the Endangered Spieces Act (ESA). Their online report is excellent, and worth examining. The transcript of their analysis reveals Gwen Ifil interviewing DIRK KEMPTHORNE, U.S. Interior Secretary, and ANDREW WETZLER, Natural Resources Defense Council: They also have links to a transcript of Sec. Kempthorne's remarks, with diagrams, and one to a digest of the EPA law and updates. While the factual reporting was excellent, it raised more questions than it answered.

To synopsize where we're at, for those who don't know, three environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued the EPA to make a ruling on whether to propose listing polar bears as "threatened" under the ESA. The EPA has dragged it's feet on this, postponing the ruling twice already. The enviromental groups won in court, and the EPA made their ruling today, which submits polar bears to a one year review to determine if they are to be officially classified as "threatened." Threatened, under the ESA, means "likely to become an endangered species in the foreseeable future." Endangered, under the ESA means "in danger of extinction."

The first question I had was "how is a species whose numbers are increasing being threatened?" The sole answer given for this ruling was the melting of the arctic ice shelf. However, the graphs that the Secretary showed in his briefing clearly indicate that the polar bear population has been growing since the 1960's, and the polar ice shelf declining since the 1950's. Speaking of the graph's that the Secretary showed, take note of the one I posted with this article (the polar ice shelf). Notce that the baseline of the graph is on a downward slope, making the whole graph "slanted" downward. They also compare actual measurements to "10 computer models," which somehow also go back to the 1950. However, the decline in the Arctic ice shelf is real, according to actual observation. I do not dispute that. Quoting SEC. Sec. KEMPTHORNE:

We have to look at modeling and the trend lines. Geologists would say that, in recent history -- but, of course, geologists have a different frame of reference on time. But we've been through five different ice ages. We've been through five different phases where there was warming. Are we now in that again? Man is a contributing factor to that, but to what extent? And, again, that's beyond the realm of what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be able to determine in this 12-month period. But what about the animal itself? How adaptive is it to that sort of environment where there may be changes to it. It is a very adaptive animal. What impacts might it have on other species? So all of this will be taken into account as we move forward and make a determination of what finally should be done 12 months from now.

My next question was "can polar bears survive a contraction in their population?" If we can posit that the polar bear population has grown, even as their habitat has shrunk, then might they be "overpopulating" the remaining habitat? Again, the records of habitat and polar bear population only date back around half a century, so our baseline is the first time the US attempted to count polar bears, and shortly longer for the polar ice cap. This question wasn't even asked by Ms. Ifil, though the question of what is causing the melting of the ice shelf was assumed to be "man-made global warming," which Sec. Kepthorne strongly asserted that the EPA had no jurisdiction to try to control through the ESA.

There does seem to be a threat to the polar bears, which has caused declines in some local populations of polar bears in Canada. Quoting the Secretary again:

KEMPTHORNE: It is. There is a -- what they have done -- in a region which they call the western Hudson Bay in Canada, they've seen a decline of that particular population. One of the precursors to that decline was the actual weight loss and reduction of the size of the adult polar bears, and then the survival rate of the cubs, where we're not having successful survival. That same precursor is being seen now in one of the populations in Alaska. But the Alaska population currently is stable, so that's noted. But that's all of this that has to be included into this modeling that has to take place.

My third question was "why isn't someone with my point of view being included in the Newshour analysis?" This is why I often yell at the TV, even though I love the Newshour. They have in depth reporting, but often omit conservatives' point of view, or portray either a "watered down" version (as in this case, assuming the Bush EPA guy represented any kind of "conservative" viewpoint), or some dark extreme element, that will never be actually interviewed (Rush Limbaugh, etc.), but only shown in "media report" set-up pieces.

The EPA may have been dragging it's feet on making this decision, but Sec. Keprthorne certainly seemed sympathetic to the polar bears' situation. Many conservatives, myself included, questioned the reasoning behind this step. What I found out was that the majority of reporting on this issue was inaccurate. Polar Bears are not being added to the endangered species list, as the NY Daily News, among others, reported.

On the flip side, Mr. Wetzler, from the NRDC, saw this issue as part of a much larger agenda. He wants to use it as leverage to force the government to "act" on global warming, which is clearly beyond the mandate of the ESA. Here are some quotes from Mr. Wetzler:

Well, the cause of global warming...Yes. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that the global warming we are experiencing is caused by human beings, by the emission of man of global warming gases. I don't think there's really any serious dispute about that.

He continues:

Well, there's a number of things we can do, but most fundamentally -- and you won't be surprised to hear me say this -- we have to grapple with the problem of global warming at a federal level. We need to use this opportunity to muster the political will -- which is already being seen, I think, both in the Republican and the Democratic Parties -- to enact comprehensive legislation to deal with global warming. More specifically, with regard to the polar bear, there are a number of interim things that we can do, both under the Endangered Species Act and other laws. And while the secretary is absolutely correct that, in isolation, oil and gas exploration and over-harvesting due to hunting won't cause the polar bear to go extinct, as the polar bear's numbers decline because of global warming, those other stressors on the population become very important, and it will also be important to control them. And then the final thing that we can do under the Endangered Species Act is to protect the polar bear's critical habitat.

While I'm skeptical about whether man is the cause of global warming, I think that the EPA action is a prudent step. This process still has a long way to go, and I'll follow it, as it continues. I've been a "Newshour" viewer since it was "the Macneil/Lehrer Report," back in the '70's, and it remains one of the best places to get in depth coverage of complex issues like this one. I'll still criticize them occasionally, especially their analysis, as in this case. Read the links in this post, for a better understanding of this issue.

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