Is Global Warming Threatening Polar Bear Habitats?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is studying whether the polar bear deserves to be on the list of threatened or endangered species. Many scientists believe that regions of the bear's usually icy habitat are threatened by global warming.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host.

This is DAY TO DAY and I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Global warming may be endangering polar bears. The fish and wildlife service says there is substantial scientific evidence that climate change poses a problem for the bears and it's launched a year long investigation. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has this report.

Ms. ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Twenty thousand polar bears roam the arctic sea ice. They're the top predators in this dynamic environment where fields of ice are constantly shifting, moving, and changing. Seals take refuge there. Polar bear expert Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta says it's a perfect place for polar bears.

Mr. ANDREW DEROCHER (University of Alberta): With the very keen sense of smell the bear is basically moving through this environment looking for places where seals having breathing holes or coming to the surface and that's where they can do their hunting and killing from.

SHOGREN: The huge bears pack on the fat by eating the seals and then they can go for months without eating once the ice melts.

Mr. DEROCHER: They need this food and if you start to shorten their access to it, we have grave concerns about the ramifications on the populations.

SHOGREN: Scientists say climate change is already melting arctic ice fields and much more melting is predicted in coming decades. They say in the southern most part of the polar bear's range, in Canada's west Hudson Bay, the bears already feel its affects. The sea ice there breaks up three weeks earlier than it used to. The bear's numbers have shrunk by 20% in ten years.

Ms. ROSA MEEHAN (Fish and Wildlife Service): They're having fewer cubs and there's fewer cubs that make it to adulthood.

SHOGREN: Rosa Meehan who heads the fish and wildlife services marine mammal division in Alaska says her agency will weigh this research when deciding whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species. She says they're also seeing change on the northern coast of Alaska. Here polar bears are moving to land because ice is disappearing.

Ms. MEEHAN: I did field work in the Beaufort Sea along the coast in the late 1970s early 1980s and I walked along a lot of the coast up there and we never worried about seeing polar bears. Well now, in the fall, you can count on seeing polar bears along the coast.

SHOGREN: Meehan says that's because the sea ice, where bears used to roam, is receding northward.

Ms. MEEHAN: And what's happened is that distance between the land and the sea ice has gotten big. So there's a lot of open water. Well that used to be ice.

SHOGREN: In recent years government scientists have documented polar bears drowning as they try to swim long distances in seas that can be very harsh. Andrew Wetzler of Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, says scientific research makes it clear polar bears should be listed as threatened.

Mr. ANDREW WETZLER (Natural Resources Defense Council): It's not a foregone conclusion that the polar bears will be listed, but the evidence supporting listing is simply overwhelming.

SHOGREN: It would be the first time climate change put a species on the threatened list. Wetzler says the implications could be dramatic.

Mr. WETZLER: If polar bears are listed, the federal government is going to be obligated to take into account its actions which exacerbate global warming on the polar bear and other wildlife in the arctic US system in general and that's a great thing.

SHOGREN: This would be a huge departure from the way the government usually protects endangered species whose threats are generally close at hand. In theory, the federal government could deny a permit to a coal fired power plant in Ohio because its emissions would contribute to climate change and eradicating polar bears. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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