Conservationists File Lawsuit to Protect Polar Bear Under Endangered Species Act

Global Warming, Melting Ice Threaten Bear with Extinction

Media release - December 15, 2005
Three leading conservation groups filed a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) today, to protect the world’s polar bears from extinction as a result of the disappearing Arctic sea ice that they depend on for hunting, mating and travel. The lawsuit points to extensive scientific evidence showing that the unprecedented polar meltdown is the result of global warming.

The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in San Francisco, one day after scientists released a study documenting that polar bears are drowning as a result of record low sea ice levels off the coast of Alaska. The groups filing the suit include the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Greenpeace.  

On Wednesday, scientists with the U.S. Minerals Management Service released a report documenting the deaths of four polar bears found drowned in September 2004, when the sea ice had retreated a record 160 miles north of the northern coast of Alaska. The researchers said that more polar bears may have drowned than had been found.

"Global warming and rising temperatures in the Arctic jeopardize the polar bear's very existence," said Melanie Duchin, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace. "Polar bears cannot survive without sea ice, and these bears could disappear in our lifetime if we don't take action."

The groups first petitioned to have the polar bear listed as threatened last February. The Endangered Species Act requires that the Secretary of the Interior respond within 90 days of receiving such notice, but the Secretary has yet to comply. The Secretary received another notice 60 days ago, but the groups have received no response. If today's lawsuit is successful, polar bears could become the first mammal to be officially declared at risk due to global warming.

Listing under the United States Endangered Species Act -- America's safety net for plants and animals on the brink of extinction -- will provide broad protection to polar bears, including a requirement that United States federal agencies ensure that any action carried out, authorized, or funded by the United States government will not "jeopardize the continued existence" of polar bears, or adversely modify their critical habitat.

 "Listing under the Endangered Species Act will provide important protections to this majestic animal," said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity. "To make sure these bears survive, we need to reduce the global warming pollution that is melting their habitat."

Polar bears live only in the Arctic and are totally dependent on the sea ice. A growing body of evidence shows that the Arctic ice is vanishing much faster than previously expected. The thick multiyear ice has been shrinking eight to 10 percent per decade, with some climate models predicting that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer as early as 2050.

Polar bears in western Hudson Bay are already showing signs of decline as a result of sea ice breaking up three weeks earlier than in past decades. As a result, polar bears spend an extra month onshore fasting before they can return to the ice in the fall in search of prey. The Hudson Bay population of polar bears has already dropped approximately 14 percent in 10 years, from 1,100 in 1995 to fewer than 950 in 2004.

"We need to take action now to protect these animals and preserve their Arctic habitat. We cannot afford to ignore the threat any longer," said Andrew Wetzler of NRDC.

Global warming is caused by heat-trapping pollution such as carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks, power plants, and other sources that accumulate in the atmosphere and prevent the sun's heat from escaping. The United States is the world's largest contributor of those emissions.

More information regarding polar bears, global warming, and United States climate policy is available online at: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/species/polarbear/index.html, http://www.nrdc.org/, and http://www.greenpeaceusa.org.

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VVPR info: Jane Kochersperger, Greenpeace, 202/319-2493 or 202/415-5477 (cell)