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And now a bigger animal. The polar bear could be the first species to be put on the endangered species list because of global warming. This week the Department of the Interior is expected to announce whether the polar bear makes the list.
The state that's home to the polar bear, Alaska, is among the first to actually feel the effects of climate change, but Alaska's government is arguing against new protections for the polar bear.
Elizabeth Arnold reports.
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: The top predator at the top of the world is having a hard time finding food because of melting sea ice. That much everyone seems to agree on. But there's wide disagreement over whether the polar bear should be put on the endangered species list and the consequences of that action.
The state of Alaska has taken the position that a listing is wrongheaded. And Ken Taylor, the state's Deputy Commissioner of Fish and Game, has the unenviable task of explaining why.
Deputy Commissioner KEN TAYLOR (Alaska Department of Fish And Game): This is really not a question about who is and who isn't concerned about polar bears and climate change. We all are. It's really a question of whether or not listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act is the appropriate mechanism for addressing greenhouse gas emissions.
ARNOLD: Scientists believe the global population of 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears is relatively robust, although there's not enough data on bears in Russia and other remote Arctic areas. The most well-studied population, in Canada's Hudson Bay, has dropped by 22 percent since 1987.
Taylor and the state of Alaska don't dispute this. Nor do they dispute that sea ice is melting at an accelerated pace, reducing the bear's habitat for longer periods each summer. But Taylor maintains there's still not nearly enough evidence to classify the bear as threatened due to warming. The state challenges the modeling used in the U.S. Geological Survey's most dire prediction yet that the habitat of two-thirds of the bears will disappear by 2050.
Mr. TAYLOR: Using the Endangered Species Act to list a healthy population based on a projected 45-year climate change is stretching scientific credibility, in our opinion.
ARNOLD: That position pits the state of Alaska against polar bear biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, not to mention climatologists of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. And it's causing some in Alaska to shake their heads in disbelief.
A few months ago, the state sided with the automobile industry in challenging the Supreme Court case over regulation of greenhouse gases. Now, it's siding with the minority who reject the concept of climate change?
Margaret Williams heads up the World Wildlife Funds Alaska office. She's the director of its programs in the Bering Sea.
Ms. MARGARET WILLIAMS (Director, World Wildlife Funds, Alaska office): It's like being against mom and apple pie. The polar bear is a symbol people relate to. We see polar bears on Coco-Cola commercials. Kids relate to the polar bear, the North Pole. Everybody loves the polar bear. And, again, there is very little dispute about the science telling us that the polar bear's endangered.
ARNOLD: But Alaska's Ken Taylor says it's not about the bear, it's about the unknown consequences of listing the bear. How would a recovery plan protect the bears from habitat loss? Would it focus on protection of huge swaths of Arctic Ocean or would it try to force behavioral changes in the lower 48 states?
It's all new ground. It's not known whether a listing based on climate change forecasts would, for example, lead to new regulations on the automobile industry in the Midwest or for coal-fired power plants in the Southwest. But there's plenty of speculation. Here's Alaska's Congressman Don Young.
Representative DON YOUNG (Republican, Alaska): You want (unintelligible) puts this country into a recession, do - put that polar bear on an endangered species list. You want to cripple this nation economically, put that polar bear on an endangered species list. And it's just a terrible example of how this act has been misused. We're the only ones that are not adapting to climate change. We're the only ones. All the other species will adapt. They'll all change, and they will survive.
ARNOLD: Alaska's senior Senator Ted Stevens is just as outraged. But he believes a listing will unduly punish Alaska as places where development might occur are deemed critical habitat areas. He argues Alaska would be the scapegoat for the rest of the country's habits.
Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): This becomes a freebie for the extreme environmentalists. They can show that they're doing something because of their predictions on global warming, but they're not doing a thing. They're not parking their Jeep 4's or 5's and they're not parking their Fiats and they're not stopping their lifestyles. They are continuing to be massive consumptives of energy that produces an enormous amount of CO2.
This is motivated by the people who follow Vice President Gore's prediction that the world's going to come to an end because of global warming. That's the problem.
ARNOLD: Environmentalists concede there are better way for Congress and the country to address climate change, but their hope is that the polar bear will bring attention to the need, just as listing the American bald eagle led to the regulation of pesticides and the banning of the insecticide DDT.
Apparently the state of Alaska better get used to it. Just last week a petition was filed seeking protection for yet another Arctic sea mammal, the Pacific walrus.
For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold in Anchorage.