Muckraker: Grist on PoliticsInterior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne was flanked by two large television screens rolling video of polar bears as he discussed his department’s decision Wednesday to declare the bears “threatened.” The video bears — and the bears in the many photos on display at the press conference — were fat and happy, wrestling on solid ice floes and devouring the flesh of prey. But environmentalists fear that Interior’s decision not to give the bears the stronger “endangered” designation will put them in continued peril — meaning fewer healthy bears, and eventually, none at all.

“Secretary Kempthorne threw a bone to the polar bear, and the polar bear really needs a life vest,” Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, told Grist. “If they are acknowledging that the polar bear is threatened, they need to do something meaningful to help the bear, and it sounds from the statements today that it’s going to be business as usual.”

Interior’s decision to give the bears the looser “threatened” status means the department has leeway to select which protections to impose. Its press release on the decision assures that this will “allow continuation of vital energy production in Alaska.”

The decision was received by many in the environmental community as a partial step forward and a few steps back. Though it was progress to hear a Bush administration official acknowledge that global warming is not only real but threatening the lives of polar bears, it’s not enough, according to Shogan and other environmental advocates present at today’s announcement. Acknowledging the problem without committing to protecting the bears’ habitat from oil and gas drilling or treating it as an impetus for comprehensive climate legislation means the bears are still in danger, they argue.

Kempthorne made clear that the decision “should not open the door to use of the [Endangered Species Act] to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles, power plants, and other sources.” He also said the department plans to propose modifications to ESA regulatory language to “prevent abuse of this listing to erect a back-door climate policy.”

“ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy,” Kempthorne said at the press conference, and repeated a line from George W. Bush’s Rose Garden climate speech last month claiming that decisions about climate policy “should not be left to unelected regulators and judges.”

Representatives from Greenpeace USA — which, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued to get the polar bear listed as endangered — were, of course, disappointed by the decision.

“They tried to craft this decision to pretend like their hands are tied, and they know that’s not true,” said Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace USA. “They clearly came under a lot of pressure from the oil and gas industry and a lot of pressure from other interests to make a decision that doesn’t impact their industries.”

Polar-bear advocates pledged that they will continue to fight in Congress and in the courts to get stronger protections for the animals, and to limit oil and gas drilling in their habitat. Some in Congress are already stepping up to join the effort. On Wednesday afternoon, Reps. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) filed the Polar Bear Seas Protection Act [PDF] in the House, a bill that would direct the National Research Council to study the impacts of climate change and of oil and gas exploration on species in Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas. It would also require the Department of Interior to designate critical habitat areas for the bears and require companies that want to drill in the region to demonstrate their ability to clean up oil spills before they are granted the rights.

Advocates hope they can find other ways around the Bush administration in order to protect the polar bear, which has become a vehicle for a greater conversation about the impacts of global warming and what the government should do to curb it.

“The polar bear stands in for all of us,” said Davies. “If we can save the polar bear, we can save the rest of us.”

After Kempthorne’s announcement, three people in polar bear suits milled through the crowd; the one representing Greenpeace toted a sign that read “Global warming = extinction!” As he wandered in front of a CNN news camera, a security guard approached a Greenpeace representative and asked, “Could you tell your bear to get over there? He’s going to be in the shot.”