WASHINGTON - The U.S. Interior Department is listing polar bears as a threatened species in danger of extinction but it won't address the issue of global warming that's causing the loss of their Arctic sea ice habitats.
The long-delayed decision, awaited anxiously in Canada, obliges the government to devise a protection plan for the bears but there will be no limits on greenhouse gas emissions or constraints on oil and gas projects.
While global warming is the major factor threatening polar bears, said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, the U.S. Endangered Species Act is a "wholly inappropriate" tool for setting climate policy.
The same view was espoused last month by President George W. Bush.
"This listing will not stop global climate change or prevent sea ice from melting," Kempthorne told a news conference.
"It's not something that one continent can do by itself. We need to have the major economies of the world have these discussions."
Kempthorne consulted the White House but said it was always clear it was his decision to make.
The designation eliminates potential complications for energy projects like Alberta's oilsands that produce a higher amount of greenhouse gases.
But the United States will no longer allow imports of polar bear trophies from Canada, even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded hunting isn't a "substantial" threat to the bear population.
That's a blow to Inuit guides in Nunavut, who charge Americans up to $30,000 to shoot one of the animals.
The Nunavut government angrily denounced the decision, saying it disregards facts collected by those who have the greatest contact and longest history with polar bears.
"The truth is that polar bear populations are at near record levels," said Premier Paul Okalik.
Losing American trophy hunters will mean five struggling Nunavut communities will lose $1.7 million a year, said Gabriel Nirlungayuk, wildlife director for the territory's native land claims organization in Rankin Inlet.
"As long as you're in the oil and gas business you won't get affected, but if you're a hunter in a small community, you get hit. It's hard to understand. These communities don't have deep pockets."
It's especially disheartening, Nirlungayuk said, because the Inuit have been co-operating for decades with government biology experts to set a safe annual quota for the bears - about 400 in 2008.
"All the work that we've done, it seems to be all for naught."
There are about 25,000 polar bears in the world, up from 12,000 in the late 1960s, said Kempthorne. Some 15,000 are in Canada.
But the latest science, including data from the U.S. Geological Survey, indicates they are likely to become in danger of extinction within the next 45 years due to receding sea ice.
Computer models suggest the polar bear's primary habitat will decline more than 30 per cent by the middle of the century, reducing the population by two-thirds.
Bears in the western Hudson Bay area of Alaska and Canada are under the greatest stress.
Sea ice trends over the last 30 years indicate the models may actually be understating the change rate, said Kempthorne.
"Sound science did prevail," said Peter Ewins, director of species conservation for World Wildlife Fund Canada.
"Congratulations are due. It could have easily gone the other way."
Canada should take note, said Ewins, and take steps to implement conservation plans for oil-related accidents before the habitat of polar bears in the Beaufort Sea is sold off for exploration on June 2.
"It's going to take strong leadership to turn it around or Canada is really going to be out of step."
The Canadian committee overseeing endangered wildlife has said it will recommend the bears remain only as a species of special concern.
That would give Canada until 2014 to devise a management plan to address threats to the animal's survival, including climate change.
The committee, said Ewins, has ignored published information and assumes sea ice will remain stable.
Kempthorne, who met last week with Canada's Environment Minister John Baird, noted Canada hasn't listed polar bears as threatened even through it has two-thirds of the world's population.
"Everyone of us took great notice of that," said Kempthorne, who noted there's no similar middle-ground category for wildlife in the U.S.
Baird is expected to make a decision on the animal's status in Canada after receiving the committee's report in August with more scientific analysis.
"We're going to base our information on sound science," Baird told the House of Commons in Ottawa.
"The bottom line is a declining polar bear population is not an option for Canada. It's not what Canadians want."
The U.S. decision was expected early this year but the Interior Department said it needed more time to work out the details. Environmentalists filed a lawsuit to force a decision and a U.S, federal court set a deadline of May 15.