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Shaye Wolf

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Wolverines, Polar Bears Need Obama Administration's Help to Survive Climate Crisis

Posted: 03/07/2013 4:53 pm

What if your doctor diagnosed your grave sickness but then refused you medicine? That's basically what's happening to wildlife threatened by climate change.

The Obama administration recently admitted that two of North America's most stunning beasts -- the polar bear and the wolverine -- are being driven to extinction by the Earth's warming temperatures.

In the Arctic, winter sea ice is melting so fast that scientists predict that two out of three polar bears, including all the bears in Alaska, will be gone by 2050. Warming temperatures are also stealing the deep mountain snow wolverines need to survive. Federal scientists say the 250 to 300 wolverines left in the lower 48 states are in danger of extinction.

As a scientist, I applaud the government's decision to put polar bears under the Endangered Species Act's care in 2008 -- a decision just upheld by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

And I'm delighted that the same protection was proposed for wolverines earlier this year. But in both cases, the Obama administration refused to address the climate crisis -- the very threat pushing these amazing animals to the brink of oblivion.

Here's how this trick works: In protecting an animal as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, the government can enact a special rule -- named "4(d)" after the section of the act where it appears -- that can preclude regulation of certain harms to that species.

When the Bush administration listed polar bears as "threatened" in 2008, it included a 4(d) rule saying the Act's protection couldn't trigger efforts to slow global warming, such as reducing carbon emissions from coal plants.

This February, the Obama administration released a nearly identical version. Like Bush, Obama has refused to include greenhouse gases under another important section of the law requiring federal agencies to reduce the impact of their actions on threatened and endangered species. So while agencies look for ways to reduced pesticides that harm frogs and mercury that harms fish, they ignore greenhouse pollutants.

It's not like the polar bears' outlook has improved. They need sea ice to hunt and raise their young. Warming Arctic temperatures, though, are melting the ice beneath their feet. In September, Arctic sea ice extent hit an all-time low. Just weeks ago, a report from 12 leading polar bear researchers urged governments to plan for rapid ecosystem shifts that could send some polar bear populations into abrupt decline.

Without help, polar bears could be completely gone by the end of the century.

Wolverines don't have it much better. Although these fierce animals are incredibly tough -- they've been known to chase grizzly bears off a carcass -- their survival skills are no match for the high temperatures melting their mountain snow habitat.

"In the future, wolverine habitat is likely to be reduced to the point that that the wolverine in the contiguous United States is in danger of extinction," the government said.

It's a grim diagnosis. But where's the life-saving medicine? As with the polar bears, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a 4(d) exemption ensuring that Endangered Species Act protection for wolverines doesn't prompt attempts to address the climate crisis.

The Obama administration took a similar tack in December when it finalized Endangered Species Act protections for ringed and bearded seals, two Arctic species threatened by melting sea ice.

In the coming years, it'll be the same story for scores of other animals unable to adapt quickly enough to our warming world. Rising seas will submerge beaches for sea turtles, mountain refuges will become too hot for pikas and oceans will become too acidic for reef dwellers.

Over the past 40 years, the Endangered Species Act has rescued more than a thousand species from extinction. But the law, which has helped save bald eagles, Atlantic green sea turtles and peregrine falcons, only works when applied to the key threats facing a species.

The law could help rescue the wolverine and the polar bear -- but only if the Obama administration changes course and confronts the climate crisis now delivering record heat and terrifying sea ice loss.

If we're going to save America's wildlife from the ravages of climate change, we can't just hope for the best. We must address the problem head-on -- before preserving these unique creatures becomes impossible.

 
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