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Do polar bears need U.S. protection?

A federal agency is poised to say whether global warming means the bear should be added to the 'threatened species' list.

By Tony AziosCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 2008

Slippery slope? Polar bear numbers are down here along the west Hudson Bay in Canada, researchers say.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/AP/FILE

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Do polar bears, which have become the poster child for the potential ravages of future global warming, need special protection from Uncle Sam now?

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That's the question under consideration at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which is poised to recommend whether the icon of the Arctic should be officially designated as a threatened species – even though the bear's numbers currently are not in precipitous decline.

The judiciousness of protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), in anticipation that its frozen habitat will be thawing as a consequence of climate change, is a matter of hot debate. Many scientists say Arctic wildlife is experiencing the repercussions of a warming planet more rapidly than organisms in other regions, but others say listing the bear would cause economic hardship and do next to nothing to save its habitat.

"This is a complex issue because we have most polar bear populations not showing significant declines at the moment, but we have a lot of climate models and data showing great losses in the foreseeable future," says Chris Tollefson of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the federal agency responsible for protecting wildlife and their habitats. The service's recommendation is due by Jan. 9.

If listed, the polar bear would be the first mammal listed as threatened as a consequence of global warming, and the federal government would be required to take action to protect it in Alaska, the only place in the US the bear lives, and in places the US issues permits. The ESA defines a threatened species as one likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.

With as many as 25,000 wild polar bears dispersed across five countries, the species is not exactly teetering on the edge of oblivion, say opponents of the effort. The World Conservation Union (IUCN), though, reports that five of the Arctic's 19 polar bear populations are already experiencing declines, as the bears lose habitat and food because of melting sea ice.

Bear populations that are currently stable will also face sink or swim conditions in the future if temperatures rise as projected, say researchers. The United States Geological Survey predicts that habitat loss, primarily from global warming, will slash the world's polar bear population to one-third of its current level by mid-century.

"When we look at the current and projected condition of transit sea ice, it is clear that the species as a whole is facing an increasingly formidable habitat," says Andrew Derocher, a biologist at the University of Alberta in Canada and chairman of the IUCN's Polar Bear Specialist Group.