The Bush Administration had not wanted to designate the polar bear as threatened in the first place; now Palin's lawsuit provided cover to backtrack on the decision. The Interior Department had issued the listing only after environmental groups filed two lawsuits, and the courts ordered compliance. While the polar bear population was currently stable, the plaintiffs argued, greenhouse gas emissions were melting the Arctic ice that polar bears rely on to hunt seals, their main food source. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey supported this argument, concluding that two-thirds of all polar bears could be gone by 2050 if Arctic ice continues to melt as scientists project. The listing was the first time global warming had been cited as the sole premise in an Endangered Species Act case, and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne clearly wanted it to be the last. When Kempthorne announced the polar bear listing on May 14, he emphasized that it would not affect federal policy on global warming or block development of "our natural resources in the Arctic."
A week after Palin's lawsuit, Kempthorne delivered on that pledge. On Aug. 11, he proposed new rules that could allow federal agencies to decide for themselves whether their actions will imperil a threatened or endangered species. The rule reverses precedent: Since passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service have made such determinations independent of the agency involved. Under the new rule, if the Army Corps of Engineers is building a dam, the corps can decide whether it is putting species at risk.
Hated by the right wing as an infringement on property rights, the Endangered Species Act has been on Bush's hit list since the beginning of his presidency, when he chose Gale Norton as his first Interior Secretary. A Republican woman of the West like Palin, Norton assailed the act and did all she could to undermine it. "The Bush Administration has listed only 60 species as threatened or endangered, compared with 522 under Clinton and 231 under the first President Bush," says Noah Greenwald, science director of the Center for Biological Diversity, the lead plaintiff in the polar bear case. "And it took a court order to make each of those 60 listings happen."
Kempthorne's proposal nevertheless seems likely to go forward. Congress could block funding, but few expect that to happen. Lawsuits are certain to follow, but critics say the quickest solution would be for the next administration to withdraw the rule. Barack Obama seems likely to do that; he immediately condemned Kempthorne's proposal. John McCain was silent. But his choice of Palin -- who does not believe global warming is caused by humans -- suggests that Arctic creatures have much to fear from a McCain administration.
And not just Arctic creatures. What's missing from most discussions about endangered species is that preserving other species is not an act of charity; it is essential to our own survival. "Endangered species issues are usually seen as humans versus nature -- we act in favor of one or the other -- and that's just not the case," says Aaron Bernstein, a fellow at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard and an editor (with Eric Chivian) of Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity. "Polar bears hold tremendous value to medicine, for example," explains Bernstein. "There is something about the metabolism of female polar bears that allows them to put on tremendous amounts of fat before winter but not become Type 2 diabetic. We don't understand how they do it yet, but this research is hugely important."
But human dependence on other species is even broader. "We need [ants] to survive, but they don't need us at all," notes naturalist E.O. Wilson in a quote Bernstein and Chivian include in Sustaining Life. Without ants (and countless other underground species that will never be the subject of impassioned environmental appeals) to ventilate the soil, the earth would rot, halting food production. Without trees, water supplies would shrink. To study the natural world is to realize that everything is connected. What we do to the polar bears, we do to ourselves.
Mark Hertsgaard is the author of Earth Odyssey. This first appeared in The Nation (www.thenation.com).