Are Polar Bears Better Off 'Endangered'? Conservation groups are fighting to get the polar bear listed as a threatened species, but the Bush administration and Alaska's governor are freezing them out. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren discusses the future of the polar bear in Alaska.
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Are Polar Bears Better Off 'Endangered'?

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Are Polar Bears Better Off 'Endangered'?

Are Polar Bears Better Off 'Endangered'?

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

Two stories now on big, iconic animals that conservation groups use to arouse people about threats to the environment.

BRAND: First, polar bears. Three groups say they will sue the government to force it to protect the bears.

CHADWICK: NPR environment correspondent Elizabeth Shogren is with us.

Elizabeth, this is about whether polar bears should be counted an endangered species, yes?

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Well, it's slightly different, actually. What the government has proposed doing is putting them on the endangered species list as a threatened species, which - the difference means that there is a threat that they will become extinct in the future - in a big portion of their range. So one of the things that's interesting about this is the polar bear would be the first species that would be put on the endangered species list because of global warming.

CHADWICK: And this has to do - the Arctic ice is going away. They depend on the Arctic ice. So for sure, bad things are going to happen to them.

SHOGREN: Well, that's what scientists say. They have looked really thoroughly at lots of studies. And they have come up with a prediction that by the middle of this century, two-thirds of the bears that are now roaming the Arctic will be gone. And they'll be gone from most of their current range.

CHADWICK: There are 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic region. If they were counted as an endangered species, certainly, that would trigger some consequences. Things would have to happen. And so there are some groups against this listing.

SHOGREN: That's right, particularly the industries that use the Arctic or hope to use the Arctic more widely in the future. And first on the list is the oil-extracting industry. And they say that it's not a good idea and that it's wrong for the government to list them.

CHADWICK: The governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, had an op-ed piece in the New York Times last weekend arguing also against this listing. And she noted that there are more polar bears in Alaska now than there were 40 years ago. Is she right?

SHOGREN: Well, the data is a little bit different than that. What the government scientists have produced as part of their study to try to decide whether or not to put the bears on the endangered species list, they have been able to show that in fact the populations probably are pretty stable so far. But polar bear cubs are not surviving at a very strong rate. And the scientists say if the cubs don't survive, that's going to have an impact on the population along the way.

CHADWICK: When is the decision going to come on this and what happens next?

SHOGREN: Well, what the government said earlier this week when they postponed their decision is that they hope to have the decision within a month. The timing is an important issue here because the government has also told us that they're planning early next month to lease - offshore leases for oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea, which is the big sea between the U.S. and Russia. And it'll be interesting to see what happens there, whether the government is going to lease this huge area for offshore drilling at the same time that it's saying that the polar bear is threatened.

CHADWICK: NPR's Elizabeth Shogren.

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