From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today, the federal government said that climate chance threatens the polar bear with extinction, and it proposed putting it on the endangered species list.

As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, the move would be the first time that a species would be added to the list because of global warming.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne says recent research about polar bears tells a bleak story.

BLOCK: Polar bears are one of nature's ultimate survivors. 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.

SHOGREN: Officials from the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service drafted a proposal to list the bears as threatened. They cite recent studies about polar bears reduced to cannibalism and drowning in waters off Alaska. Even more persuasive was a long term study of bears in Hudson Bay, Canada. It documents a 22 percent loss in bear population because the sea ice they depend on is disappearing. And many studies by climate scientists predict that the loss of sea ice is accelerating across the Arctic.

Scott Schliebe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service's review of that research.

BLOCK: One of the most recent modeling efforts indicated that we may be close to an ice free state within 40 years.

SHOGREN: What would that mean for the polar bears?

BLOCK: Well, that'd be very dire situation for bears, because they'd be removed from ice seals, their primary prey.

SHOGREN: Schliebe's group also found that efforts underway in the U.S. and around the world to control global warming are inadequate to save the polar bear.

BLOCK: 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.

SHOGREN: The Interior Department will spend a year studying the proposal. If it lists the polar bear as threatened, a group of experts will determine what to do protect the great white mammals. Usually, rare species are preserved by banning hunting or other activities that kill them or by restricting threats to their habitats, such as logging.

But experts say it will take a worldwide effort to keep polar bears from going extinct. People have to use cleaner energy and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from vehicles, factories and power plants. That's the view of the three environmental groups that took the government to court to protect polar bears.

Kassie Siegel worked on the case for the Center for Biological Diversity.

BLOCK: It's very good news. I think it marks a real watershed turning point in the way we address climate change in this country.

SHOGREN: Environmental groups see the listing of the polar bear as a new tool in their effort to curb climate change.

Andrew Wetzler from the Natural Resources Defense Council argues that the government would have to consider climate change in a wide assortment of decisions.

BLOCK: Let's say that the federal government was going to issue permits for a whole series of coal fired power plants in the Midwest, which are major sources of carbon and global warming gases. Because those power plants require federal permits and because the emission of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 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.

SHOGREN: But Interior Secretary Dirk 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.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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