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.
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Polar bears rely on frozen sea ice to hunt, find mates, and make dens for rearing their young, and have been known to migrate across areas the size of Montana. Loss of sea ice and changes in its distribution are believed to be causing some bears to compete for habitat and even to eat other bears to survive. The problem has been pronounced in the west Hudson Bay of Canada, where polar bear numbers have dropped by about 25 percent since the 1980s, partly due to a lack of adequate habitat for dens, researchers say.Skip to next paragraph
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Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) has publicly opposed the ESA listing. Such a move could cause economic hardship through federal restrictions on development and oil industry projects – all without increasing the polar bear's numbers, argues the Palin administration.
"We know listing polar bears as endangered or threatened will not … cause sea water to freeze," Governor Palin wrote to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in 2006, as conservation groups petitioned the FWS to research the need to list the bear. Mr. Kempthorne will approve or deny the FWS recommendation.
Even within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, where global warming is considered a threat to the state, many regard the reasoning behind preemptively listing the polar bear as flimsy.
"There is currently a healthy population of polar bears worldwide," says Ken Taylor, the department's deputy commissioner. "We are concerned that if they use climate modeling to project 45 years ahead, we might be getting too subjective scientifically."
Some conservationists are not optimistic about the polar bear's chances of making the list.
"The Bush administration always manages to surprise us by ignoring the science at the expense of the environment," says Brendan Cummings, attorney with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) based in Tucson, Ariz., which petitioned to have the bear listed.
Dr. Derocher at the University of Alberta, who has seen the loss of Arctic habitat firsthand during his 25 years studying polar bears, argues that the science is solid and that it's time for governments to protect species made vulnerable by climate change.
"For some people, the proof of this won't be reliable until the last polar bear drowns," he says.
Conservationists expect that many species of plants and animals will be listed under the ESA in coming years. Federal marine mammal scientists are currently studying the viability of Pacific walrus populations in Alaska, and the CBD petitioned late in December to list the ribbon seal as threatened. Two coral species, the elkhorn and staghorn, were listed as threatened last year due to global-warming-induced habitat degradation.