Monday, Feb. 4, 2008 | 2 a.m.
As the Bush administration enters its final months, the fates of two species — Alaska’s polar bear and the West’s gray wolf — hang in the balance.
Members of Congress have accused Interior Department officials of stalling proposed Endangered Species Act protection for the polar bears because the agency is seeking to open oil drilling leases this week in the Chukchi Sea, where 20 percent of the Arctic polar bears live.
Down in the Lower 48, conservation groups have filed a lawsuit in the Montana U.S. District Court to block a new federal rule that would expand the circumstances under which people in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming could kill gray wolves. The wolves have been on the Endangered Species List since 1973 but may be removed from the list this month.
Even with the protection, wolves could be shot if they preyed on livestock or threatened dogs on private property. But the new rule, issued Jan. 24, says wolves now also may be killed if they threaten a dog on public land or if they are even partially responsible for depletions in elk, deer or moose populations.
The burden of proof for this last portion of the rule is weak. State wildlife officials would have to show only that wolf predation was among the reasons for a population decline among elk, deer or moose — staples of the wolf’s diet.
The wolf, which neared extinction in 1973, was reintroduced to the interior West in 1995. About 1,500 now live in the region, but conservation groups say nearly half of them could die under this new rule. Federal wildlife officials dispute that, but their claims are difficult to trust. The Bush administration hasn’t exactly been a champion of protecting animals and habitat.
Bush has weakened wetlands protections and has opposed adding protections or sought to weaken existing ones for species that include salmon, grizzly bears and sage grouse. He has called for oil and gas drilling and other development in some of the nation’s most sensitive habitats — including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Now gray wolves and polar bears are in danger of being added to the growing list of species that Bush isn’t willing to fully protect.