White House Lists Polar Bears as 'Threatened'

The Bush administration announces on Wednesday that the polar bear will be protected as a threatened species because of the decline in Arctic sea ice from global warming. It's the first time that the Endangered Species Act has been used to protect a species threatened by the impact of climate change.

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The Bush administration has agreed to add the polar bear to the list of plants and animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. That law requires the preservation of the bears' habitat. But, in this case, that may not be an easy thing to do. The biggest threat to polar bears is melting sea ice linked to global warming.

And as NPR's John Nielsen reports, today's listing comes with a caveat.

JOHN NIELSEN: Interior secretaries don't often hold press conferences to announce endangered species listings, but that's what Dirk Kempthorne did today when he officially declared the polar bear a threatened species. Kempthorne said he made the call for three main reasons. First, he said, Arctic sea ice is essential to the polar bears' survival.

Secretary DIRK KEMPTHORNE (U. S. Interior Department): Second, the polar bears sea ice habitat has dramatically melted in recent decades. Third, computer models suggest sea ice is likely to further recede in the future.

NIELSEN: Kempthorne said he'd been convinced that melting sea ice forecast issued by computer models were both accurate and scary. But, he didn't seem to have much faith in the idea that global warming was behind the melting trend, and he said environmentalists shouldn't plan to use the Endangered Species Act or ESA to force government action on climate change.

Sec. KEMPTHORNE: Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears, but it should not open the door to use the ESA to regulate green house gas emissions from automobiles, power plants and other sources. That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the Endangered Species Act. ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy.

NIELSEN: Kempthorne says that's why he added some unprecedented language to the polar bear listing; it essentially tries to limit the listing's impact on the energy industry. John Kostyack, a climate change expert at the National Wildlife Federation, called it an attempt to run away from the obvious implications of the listing.

Mr. JOHN KOSTYACK (Senior Counsel, National Wildlife Federation): If you are a coal plant dodging global warming pollution, you are contributing to the extinction of the polar bear. He's not willing to say that. And so he said, we're going to put out a rule that details every contributor to global warming pollution that we can't make any causal connection to your activity in the loss of sea ice, which is scientifically incorrect. We will never stand the test of time.

NIELSEN: Kostyack says environmentalists will almost certainly sue to get this language stricken. That could send the fight over how to protect these species back into court for a long time.

Fortunately, there are at least 20,000 polar bears in the world right now, and in recent years, that number has been rising. But polar bear experts say those trend lines may start changing soon. Recent studies in places like Canada's Hudson Bay appear to show that the bears are getting smaller, eating less and dying younger. In other words, these bears may be starting their decline.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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Warming May Put Polar Bear on Threatened List

A polar bear and cub.

hide captionA polar bear and cub.

Scott Schliebe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The federal government says climate change threatens the polar bear with extinction, and the efforts under way to arrest global warming will not be adequate to save the mighty Arctic predator.

"Polar bears are one of nature's ultimate survivors," says Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. "They're able to live and thrive in one of the world's harshest environments. But there's concern that their habitat may literally be melting."

Kempthorne proposed today putting the polar bear on the endangered species list as a threatened species. He said it will take a year before the animal is added to the list. But if it happens, it would be the first time a species was listed because of global warming.

Environmental groups that sued to force the government to protect the polar bear say the decision marks a sea change in the Bush administration's approach to climate change issues.

Officials from the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service studied all the recent science about polar bears, and they say it presents a powerful picture.

"The Arctic is warming, and the trends are showing an acceleration in warming. With that warming we're seeing movements of warmer fresh water into the Arctic and continued reduction in the amount of ice that's available for polar bears to make a living on," said Scott Schliebe, polar bear project leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service and main author of the proposal.

As the ice shrinks, polar bears find it harder to hunt for seals, their primary food source.

"That ultimately will have an effect on the ability of polar bears to reproduce and survive," Schliebe adds.

He says recent studies about polar bears reduced to cannibalism and drowning in waters off Alaska influenced the decision. But he says other research was more persuasive. In particular, a long-term study of bears in Hudson Bay Canada documented a 22 percent loss in population where the sea ice has been receding. And multiple studies by climate scientists predict that the loss of sea ice is accelerating across the Arctic.

"One of the most recent modeling efforts shows that we may be close to an ice-free state (in the Arctic) within 40 years," Schliebe says. "That would be a very dire situation for bears, because they'd be removed from ice seals, their primary prey."

Schliebe's group also found that efforts underway in the United States and around the world to control global warming will not be adequate to save the polar bear.

"Ultimately, we'll have to, if we want to be successful, look at the driving factor that's changing the sea-ice habitat that polar bears live in."

Today's announcement was just a proposal. But if the decision is made final, a group of experts will determine what needs to be done to protect the great white mammals.

Usually, rare species are preserved by banning hunting or other direct threats, or by restricting logging or development that harm their habitats. But experts say it will take a worldwide effort to keep polar bears from going extinct. People will have to use less energy and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from vehicles, factories and power plants, environmental groups and bear biologists say.

Three environmental groups took the government to court to push it to protect polar bears. Cassie Siegel worked on the case for the Center for Biological Diversity.

"It's very good news," Siegel says. "I think it marks a real turning point in the way we address climate change in this country. It's the first real acknowledgement from this administration about how dire this problem is and about how we have to act quickly to reduce emissions to protect polar bears."

Andrew Wetzler from the Natural Resources Defense Council argues that if the polar bear is listed on the endangered species list, government officials will have to consider climate change in a wide assortment of decisions.

"Let's say the federal government was going to issue permits for coal-fired power plants in the Midwest, which are major sources of carbon and global warming gases being emitted to the atmosphere," says Wetzler. "Because those power plants require federal permits and because those emissions are a direct cause of the polar bear's decline, that power plant permit is now subject to the endangered species act in a way that it was not before."

But Interior Secretary Kempthorne says analyzing the sources of climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are "beyond the scope" of the endangered species law and his department.

Professor Andrew Derocher from the University of Alberta in Canada heads an international group of polar bear experts. He says 20,000 polar bears live across the Arctic, and most of their populations are quite robust. But still he thinks they are at great risk from global warming.

"I think that people's imaginations and connections with the species are quite special," Derocher says. "It really is sort of the quintessential Arctic mammal. And to lose it would really mean a change in the Arctic. It really wouldn't be the Arctic for me any more."

He hopes the risk to the great bears will help compel people to make the significant changes that are necessary to reduce human contributions to climate change.

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