May 12, 2008 -- A Federal judge in California last month ordered the Interior Department to decide by this Friday whether to list polar bears as a threatened species because of global warming. It's a fine chance for the Bush administration to stand up for common-sense environmentalism and sound science.
You see, polar bears are thriving -- and will do so under all but the most speculative scenarios of global-warming apocalypse. Any "threatened" listing would be absurd.
The case started with a lawsuit filed by Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2005. To settle it, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Interior division that administers the Endangered Species Act's land-animals provisions, proposed in December 2006 to list the bears as threatened.
The environmental groups argue that warming will melt sea ice, on which the bears often live, and that this loss of habitat will doom the bears to extinction. In other words, they don't claim a current threat, but one decades down the line.
This would be the first time a species was placed on the endangered list based on global-warming projections. On Jan. 8, Interior announced it was postponing its decision by a month to study the issue further. The deadline passed, and the conservation groups quite rightly took FWS back to court and won. Now Interior has to do what it should have done all along: Make the decision.
Where the environmentalists are wrong is on what that decision should be.
The world polar-bear population is at a modern high - and growing. Mitch Taylor, a polar-bear biologist with Canada's Federal Provincial Polar Bear Technical Committee, notes that the bears now number about 24,000 - up about 40 percent from 1974, when fears arose about the bear's ability to survive overhunting by Canadian Eskimos and aboriginals.
The bears have been brought back by prohibiting hunting of them, along with quotas that permit only strictly regulated harvesting where needed, especially among Canada's aboriginal hunters, who have been admirably cooperative.
Under these restrictions, the species has thrived - even though sea ice has in- deed declined in recent years.
As for the warming threat, a recent article by an FWS researcher looked at how much of the bears' sea-ice habitat would vanish under the UN's (gloomy) climate projections - about 30 percent. So, even if the bears are using all the habitat now available, there'd still be habitat for about 17,000 polar bears 100 years from now.
In other words, even under the most pessimistic respectable estimates of the global-warming threat, polar bears won't be threatened with extinction or anything approaching it.
And the consequences of listing the bears as endangered would reach far beyond Alaska. The ESA requires FWS to designate the "critical habitat" for the species, and prohibits federal agencies from doing or authorizing anything that would "destroy or adversely modify" it.
So a listing based on a global-warming threat could oblige the entire federal government to stop anything that's seen as exacerbating warming. New electrical-power plants or other projects across the nation could be subject to federal review and quashed if they would generate greenhouse gases, because they might contribute to arctic warming that might melt sea ice.
Economic growth across the entire country could be stymied by a new burst of regulation.
Today, we have the most polar bears ever measured. On April 25, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada acknowledged this reality by designating the polar bear as of "special concern" - its mildest classification - ruling the bears are not endangered. That was the right call; the Interior Department should gather up the courage to do likewise.
It's not the bears that are endangered, it's the economy.
S. T. Karnick is director of research for The Heartland Institute in Chicago.