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Recommendation Nears for Listing Polar Bear as ‘Threatened’

BY Admin  December 19, 2007 at 3:45 PM EDT

Image of polar bears courtesy of FWS

In early January, the agency is due to make a recommendation to the Interior Department about whether to include the polar bear on the list. Public sentiment has generally leaned toward supporting such a listing, in light of the bear’s shrinking habitat.

As part of the review process, FWS requested comments from 14 experts “in the fields of polar bear/marine mammal biology, climatology, sea ice behavior, and/or traditional ecological knowledge,” according to the agency’s Web site.

Twelve returned comments in favor of the proposal, one agreed with conditions and one opposed it. None disputed the rationale for the proposal: disappearing sea ice habitat due to global warming.

The FWS released the submitted comments to the public without naming the respondents, one of whom noted: “The assessment of ways in which the forecasts of continued climate warming in the Arctic is likely to affect sea ice, and consequently polar bears, is both careful and thorough.”

Another added: “The service accurately summarized the observed and predicted reductions in Arctic sea ice and demonstrated the significant impact those reductions are having and will continue to have on polar bear populations.”

Several respondents even said FWS had been too conservative in estimating sea ice loss.

Some of the responses, from organizations representing Inuit tribes, took issue with other aspects of the proposal, mainly how their traditional right to hunt the bears would be affected.

The dissenting party complained of “the complete lack of consideration given to how the proposed rule would impact negatively on our constituents — the Inuit of the Arctic.” The respondent went on to argue that regulatory bodies already exist to safeguard the polar bear, and noted that the small, tourist-based sport hunting industry that provides “important economic advantages to Inuit” would be crippled by Endangered Species Act restrictions.

About 140,000 other comments came in from the general public — a majority of which supported listing the polar bear, according to the agency.

Still, some contend that the bears do not qualify as threatened.

“[T]he listing is based on what may happen in the future as opposed to what has happened in the past. … Well, we don’t believe they’re in decline,” said Marilyn Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. “Modeling projections are simply that, they’re projections, and you can crank out virtually any number you want to, based on the information that you crank into the model.”

She added that there are more direct ways to address global warming than the Endangered Species Act. “There are a number of initiatives in front of Congress and at the administrative level to address those issues, and that’s really where that debate and that focus needs to be,” she said.

Richard Ranger, a senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute, said the ESA was not designed to cause the government to take action on a healthy species based on forecasts that might happen to the species’ environment years down the road.

“We’re very concerned about the precedent that could be set by listing a species based upon forecasted impacts, when, by what we believe to be the available data today, the species in question is healthy and has populations well distributed throughout its range,” he said.

Ranger also said that the bears are more resilient than people think. “The polar bear has been inhabiting the Arctic since the Pleistocene, and has as a species lived through a number of climate cycles. So there certainly appears to be some degree of adaptability on the part of the polar bear.”

The ESA defines a threatened species as one that “is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” Endangered species are defined in the law as “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

A threatened species, the law states, gives the Interior Department the authority “to protect such species, whether by predator control, protection of habitat and food supply, or other conservation practices, within any area under its jurisdiction, or on the high seas.”

The proposal’s backers, the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, hope to leverage this authority into greater action against global warming in general.

“Global warming is the single biggest threat to polar bears’ survival, and this will require the government to address the impacts on the polar bear,” said Andrew Wetzler a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a press release. “The time for half-measures and delay is over. We must face the scientific warnings and address this challenge now.”

According to Greenpeace’s Web site, “If we are successful, the polar bear would be the first mammal to be officially declared at risk due to global warming.”

On Sept. 9, the U.S. Geological Survey released a series of studies that examined polar bears’ current situation. Their habitat rings the Arctic, with the bears themselves concentrated mainly along the north coast of North America, though populations also exist in Greenland and along the northeastern coast of Russia.

USGS’ studies found that under current trends, disappearing sea ice would result in the world population of polar bears, currently estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000, dropping by two-thirds by the year 2050.