TOPICS > Science

United States Weighs Declaring Polar Bears ‘Threatened’ Species

December 27, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The Interior Department proposed today to add polar bears to the list of animals threatened by extinction. With their numbers declining and their habitats melting, the bears are increasingly — and literally — on thin ice. For the reasons why and for what could and should happen next, we turn first to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. Welcome, Mr. Secretary.

DIRK KEMPTHORNE, U.S. Interior Secretary: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: So why are the polar bears and why may the polar bears be threatened?

DIRK KEMPTHORNE: When the Fish and Wildlife Service went through the process of the Endangered Species Act, they’re required to look at five different factors. And there was only one factor, and that was the habitat, that is being diminished, and that is because of melting sea ice.

They specifically looked at a variety of other things — for example, the harvest of the polar bear by native Alaskans. That was not a threat. They looked at oil and gas, energy development in the North Slope in Alaska. That was not a threat. It is one single issue, and that is melting ice, acknowledging that that trend is now taking place.

GWEN IFILL: When you say “that trend is now taking place,” are you acknowledging that there is, indeed, global warming which is causing this to happen?

DIRK KEMPTHORNE: Yes. I don’t think anybody would dispute that we’re seeing a warming of the Earth. President Bush has acknowledged that climate change is occurring; that’s why he’s seen an investment of $29 billion to look into this issue and this question. But the issue before us is specifically on that one species that has to be examined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. You mentioned the listing of this. This is only the proposal to list. Now we’ll begin a 12-month process to bring the best data, science, an aggressive program that the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the scientific community, can determine just what can and should be done.

Causes of climate change

Dirk Kempthorne
Secretary of the Interior
This is only the proposal to list. Now we'll begin a 12-month process to ... determine just what can and should be done.

GWEN IFILL: How do you decide what can and should be done if you don't know the causes for the melting or you don't examine the causes for the melting or the warming itself?

DIRK KEMPTHORNE: We have to look at modeling and the trend lines. Geologists would say that, in recent history -- but, of course, geologists have a different frame of reference on time. But we've been through five different ice ages. We've been through five different phases where there was warming. Are we now in that again? Man is a contributing factor to that, but to what extent? And, again, that's beyond the realm of what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be able to determine in this 12-month period. But what about the animal itself? How adaptive is it to that sort of environment where there may be changes to it. It is a very adaptive animal. What impacts might it have on other species? So all of this will be taken into account as we move forward and make a determination of what finally should be done 12 months from now.

GWEN IFILL: So it's not beyond the realm -- it is beyond the realm of you to decide exactly what it is that's causing the warming, but it's not beyond the realm of you to decide that it was not oil and gas exploration. How did you reach that determination?

DIRK KEMPTHORNE: Again, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they have done this analysis. They've looked at the activity which has been happening, and this is the actual exploration. This is the energy development that is taking place physically on the North Slope there in Alaska, and the determination was made that this is not having an adverse impact. In fact, the industry itself, over the years, has been a very important and progressive partner in helping us with the environment and with the species in that area.

GWEN IFILL: So, Mr. Secretary, you said today there were 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears worldwide, and that, in fact, there were some being lost in Canada, but not yet in the United States. So this conclusion is forward-looking?

DIRK KEMPTHORNE: It is. There is a -- what they have done -- in a region which they call the western Hudson Bay in Canada, they've seen a decline of that particular population. One of the precursors to that decline was the actual weight loss and reduction of the size of the adult polar bears, and then the survival rate of the cubs, where we're not having successful survival. That same precursor is being seen now in one of the populations in Alaska. But the Alaska population currently is stable, so that's noted. But that's all of this that has to be included into this modeling that has to take place.

The cause is 'global warming'

Andrew Wetzler
Natural Resources Defense Council
[O]nce polar bears are listed the federal government [must] prepare what's called a recovery plan. And, obviously, you can't have a plan to recovery a species unless you know not only what is causing it to go extinct but what to do about it.

GWEN IFILL: Now, some reaction to the government's announcement. Andrew Wetzler is an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. His group was one of three that filed a lawsuit against the government seeking to change the status of polar bears. Mr. Wetzler, was it your lawsuit that forced the government's hand on this?

ANDREW WETZLER, Natural Resources Defense Council: Well, first of all, I think it's important to acknowledge that this is an enormous victory, not only for the polar bear, but for all wildlife that's threatened with extinction from global warming and for people. Yes, to get to your question, it was our lawsuit that forced the federal government to make the decision they made today, one way or the other.

GWEN IFILL: So you agree that there is this threat or this potential threat to polar bears?

ANDREW WETZLER: The scientific evidence is absolutely overwhelming that polar bears are threatened with extinction because of global warming.

GWEN IFILL: We heard the secretary admit that, yes, there's global warming, but he didn't then go to the next step that global warming was caused by something that the government could necessarily do something about. He said that was basically not for him to decide; do you agree with him on that?

ANDREW WETZLER: No, I don't. I really think it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the Endangered Species Act. The Endangered Species Act will require, once polar bears are listed, that the federal government prepare what's called a recovery plan for the species. And, obviously, you can't have a plan to recovery a species unless you know, not only what is causing it to go extinct, but what to do about it.

GWEN IFILL: So what do you think is the cause?

ANDREW WETZLER: Well, the cause is global warming. The overwhelming cause...

GWEN IFILL: But what is the cause of the global warming, I guess? You both agree that it's global warming.

ANDREW WETZLER: Well, the cause of global warming...Yes. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that the global warming we are experiencing is caused by human beings, by the emission of man of global warming gases. I don't think there's really any serious dispute about that.

GWEN IFILL: So what should be done? If you agree, at least, that there is a cause and you don't necessarily agree on what's causing the global warming that happened -- let's set that aside for a moment and say, if the federal government reaches the conclusion that this is really a problem after the year's comment period has passed, what should be done about it?

ANDREW WETZLER: Well, there's a number of things we can do, but most fundamentally -- and you won't be surprised to hear me say this -- we have to grapple with the problem of global warming at a federal level. We need to use this opportunity to muster the political will -- which is already being seen, I think, both in the Republican and the Democratic Parties -- to enact comprehensive legislation to deal with global warming. More specifically, with regard to the polar bear, there are a number of interim things that we can do, both under the Endangered Species Act and other laws. And while the secretary is absolutely correct that, in isolation, oil and gas exploration and over-harvesting due to hunting won't cause the polar bear to go extinct, as the polar bear's numbers decline because of global warming, those other stressors on the population become very important, and it will also be important to control them. And then the final thing that we can do under the Endangered Species Act is to protect the polar bear's critical habitat.

A current and future threat

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the over-hunting question. And I asked the secretary about the oil and gas development, which they ruled out as a cause, but over-hunting. This is a case where a species may be put in a protected status, yet people are -- certain groups of people are still in a controlled way allowed to hunt them as prey. Doesn't that seem to argue with itself?

ANDREW WETZLER: Not really. A "threatened" listing gives the federal government far more flexibility than an "endangered" listing to regulate the ways in which polar bears are harvested. And it's important to recognize that subsistence hunting of polar bears and even some sports hunting of polar bears are enormously important to first nations, to native peoples in Alaska and Canada. And as long as it's being done sustainably and responsibly, we don't have a problem with that. But, of course, as these polar bear populations begin to decline around the world, the level of hunting that's allowed needs to be adjusted to reflect the reality of those populations' health.

GWEN IFILL: There doesn't seem to be evidence so far that that polar bear population in Alaska at least is declining yet. So are we talking about a current threat or a future threat?

ANDREW WETZLER: Well, for some populations -- there's about 19 of them -- it is a future threat. And for some, it is a current threat. But I would differ with the secretary somewhat. The Alaska population in the Beaufort Sea is showing increased signs of distress. There's been a huge spike in the number of polar bears that have been drowning off the shores, as they have to swim longer and longer distances to get their sea ice habitat. There's been instances that are really unprecedented of polar bear cannibalism, as starving polar bears eat each other for food. And there's been, in fact, signs of a decline, as the secretary himself noted, in the ability of pups to survive in that population.

GWEN IFILL: So if we assume that the admission of polar bears to this elite club of endangered or "threatened" species, are there other species which also are lining up to join this list, as well?

ANDREW WETZLER: Yes. I think that there will be increasingly around the world species listed because of global warming. Two species of coral, elkhorn and staghorn coral, have already been listed in part because of global warming. And species in the Arctic, such as the ring seal, which is completely ice-dependent, and that the polar bear actually depends on itself for its prey, is probably in a lot of trouble. Walruses are. Penguins in the Antarctic are probably in trouble, all because of global warming.

GWEN IFILL: Andrew Wetlzer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, thank you very much.

ANDREW WETZLER: Thank you for having me.