For the last three years, the Department of Interior has been dragging its feet when it comes to protecting the polar bear. Today, it finally listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This might seem like a victory but there are enough holes in this listing to leave the polar bear unprotected against its biggest threat, global warming.
After months of calculated delays and several lawsuits against them, the administration listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) today. But, 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 today and this exemption eliminates any protection the listing could have provided for the polar bear. The listing specifically says federal agencies don't need to consider the impact of global warming pollution on the polar bear. But wait there's more, the listing also proposes a separate regulation that reduces the protections the polar bear would otherwise receive under the Endangered Species Act. 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.
No real protection
A threatened listing under the United States Endangered Species Act is supposed to provide broad protection to polar bears. This includes 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. A threatened listing without a 4(d) exemption for global warming pollution would have meant the US government would have had to take action on global warming to protect the polar bear. Unfortunately, today's announcement with the 4(d) exemption means federal agencies will not have to consider how global warming jeopardizes the existence of polar bears or adversely effects their critical habitat. The exemption guts any protections the ESA would have given the polar bear.
What does the science say?
A decision about whether or not to list a species under the US Endangered Species Act 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.
In 2007, the US Geological Survey predicted that by 2050, 2/3 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 U.S. 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. They could be the first mammal to lose 100 percent of their 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 emissions of global warming pollution.