Scott Schliebe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A 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.