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United States Weighs Declaring Polar Bears ‘Threatened’ Species

With polar bear numbers declining and their habitats melting, the Bush Administration has proposed labeling them a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act. The secretary of the Interior and an environmental lawyer discuss the proposal.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The Interior Department proposed today to add polar bears to the list of animals threatened by extinction. With their numbers declining and their habitats melting, the bears are increasingly — and literally — on thin ice. For the reasons why and for what could and should happen next, we turn first to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. Welcome, Mr. Secretary.

  • DIRK KEMPTHORNE, U.S. Interior Secretary:

    Thank you, Gwen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So why are the polar bears and why may the polar bears be threatened?

  • DIRK KEMPTHORNE:

    When the Fish and Wildlife Service went through the process of the Endangered Species Act, they're required to look at five different factors. And there was only one factor, and that was the habitat, that is being diminished, and that is because of melting sea ice.

    They specifically looked at a variety of other things — for example, the harvest of the polar bear by native Alaskans. That was not a threat. They looked at oil and gas, energy development in the North Slope in Alaska. That was not a threat. It is one single issue, and that is melting ice, acknowledging that that trend is now taking place.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    When you say "that trend is now taking place," are you acknowledging that there is, indeed, global warming which is causing this to happen?

  • DIRK KEMPTHORNE:

    Yes. I don't think anybody would dispute that we're seeing a warming of the Earth. President Bush has acknowledged that climate change is occurring; that's why he's seen an investment of $29 billion to look into this issue and this question. But the issue before us is specifically on that one species that has to be examined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. You mentioned the listing of this. This is only the proposal to list. Now we'll begin a 12-month process to bring the best data, science, an aggressive program that the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the scientific community, can determine just what can and should be done.

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