Endangered Species Act threatens Polar Bears

Feature story - May 15, 2008
For the last three years, the US Department of Interior has been dragging its feet when it comes to protecting the polar bear. It has now finally listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This might seem like a victory but there are enough exemptions in this listing to leave the polar bear unprotected against its biggest threat, global warming.

Polar Bears on an ice shelf. Mother and cub.

What happened?

After months of calculated delays and several lawsuits against them, brought by Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defence Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, the Bush administration has listed the polar bear as threatened under the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA).

A threatened listing under the ESA is supposed to provide broad protection to polar bears. This includes a requirement that United States federal agencies ensure that any action carried out, authorised, or funded by the United States government will not "jeopardise the continued existence" of polar bears, or adversely modify their critical habitat.

However, the decision comes with a big catch: an exemption (technically known as a "4(d) exemption") for global warming pollution. Global warming is the biggest threat facing polar bears and this exemption eliminates any real protection the listing could have provided for the polar bear. It specifically says federal agencies don't need to consider the impact of global warming pollution on the polar bear. It gets worse: the listing also proposes a separate regulation that reduces the protections the polar bear would otherwise receive under the ESA.

This might look like a listing to protect the polar bear but it's really just a way for the administration to protect the interests of the oil and gas industry, as well as get away without taking action on global warming.

What does the science say?

A decision about whether or not to list a species under the ESA is supposed to be based on the best available science. The best available, most current science on the impact of global warming on polar bears is clear: the species faces extinction because its Arctic ice habitat is melting. Sea ice melts and refreezes seasonally, but recent years have shown a smaller area of maximum sea ice in the winter. Predictions about Arctic sea ice loss have become worse with each passing year.  A few years ago, scientists were predicting the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer as early as 2100, then that prediction was moved up to 2050, then 2040 and 2030.  Late last year, one leading scientist predicted the Arctic Ocean could be ice free in summer as soon as 2012. It seems clear that the pace of global warming in the Arctic is outrunning predictions and is happening faster than expected.

"I have been following this issue for quite some time, and I have seen firsthand the impacts of global warming in the Arctic. I've been in Alaska's Beaufort Sea when the sea ice retreated so far offshore that a lone polar bear was stranded in open water, swimming for what little ice it could find in search of its ringed seal prey that were hundreds of miles away at the ice edge.   That bear was not long for this world, and the image haunts me every time I read another grim report about the plight of polar bears in our warming world," said Melanie Duchin, a global warming campaigner for Greenpeace US, based in Alaska.

In 2007, the US Geological Survey predicted that by 2050, two thirds of the world's polar bears would disappear, including all of the polar bears in the United States. Scientists are witnessing evidence that polar bears are already in real trouble. Reduced food supplies due to global warming has resulted in polar bears actually resorting to cannibalism in the north coast of Alaska and Canada. Scientists with the US Minerals Management Service documented the drowning of at least four polar bears in September 2004, when the sea ice retreated a record 160 miles off the state's northern coast. Just last week, scientists in Alaska reported that fewer polar bear yearlings are making it to maturity. The polar bear population in Western Hudson Bay of Canada has declined from approximately 1200 bears in 1987, to 1,100 bears in 1995, and then to fewer than 950 bears in 2004 due to ice loss. Arctic sea ice loss set a record low in 2007.  This year, the sea ice melt season is already shaping up to break the record set in 2007.

Polar bears and sea ice

Polar bears live only in the Arctic and are totally dependent on the sea ice for all of their essential needs, including hunting their prey. The rapid warming of the Arctic and melting of the sea ice poses a serious threat to polar bears. The polar bear could be the first mammal to lose 100 percent of its habitat to global warming.  As the ice continues to disappear, so will the polar bear. The only way to save the polar bear is to stop global warming and protect their sea ice habitat from melting away, and the only way to do that is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Once again, the Bush administration is ignoring the science that is staring it in the face: global warming is threatening polar bears with extinction. The federal government's press release carried the headline, "Secretary Kempthorne Announces Decision to Protect Polar Bears under Endangered Species Act," but it's clearly mistitled. It would have been more aptly written if it had said, "Secretary Kempthorne Announces Decision to Protect Oil and Gas Industry."  Exempting global warming pollution caused by unabated oil and gas drilling spells doom for the polar bear, pure and simple.

For those reading this and thinking that, while saving the polar bear is a laudable goal,  what's more important is drilling for oil, jobs and the economy, consider these facts:

  • The US will never be able to drill its way to energy independence since it has only three to four percent of global oil reserves, yet burns one-quarter of the world's oil.
  • The Arctic is a harbinger for things to come at lower latitudes. What we see now in the Arctic - unprecedented sea ice loss and species threatened with extinction - will not be limited to the Arctic.  Serious global warming impacts and species' extinction will accelerate in the mid-latitudes as it is in the Arctic.
  • Stalling action now means more disruption and economic cost down the line. It's not just about polar bears and the Arctic, the entire country will benefit if the government replaces dirty sources of energy such as oil, gas and coal with cleaner, climate friendly forms of energy like solar and wind.  Conservation can go a long way toward cutting US energy needs as well.

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