Change Alley

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‘Threatened’ Status For Polar Bear

with 4 comments

Polar bear adult and two cubs
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wild Life Service

The polar bear, whose summertime Arctic hunting grounds have been greatly reduced by global warming , will be placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit in 2005 to force a listing of the bear. The Center, based in Arizona, has been quite open about its hopes to use this as a legal weapon to attack anthropogenic causes of climate change, such as proposed coal-fired power plants or other new sources CO2 emissions.

On April 28, a judge ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a final listing decision by May 15. Just a day before the newly imposed deadline, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced that the polar bear would be listed as ‘threatened’. This move offers the bear some new protections, such as prohibiting the import of hides or other trophies from bears killed by US hunters in Canada. However, the Interior Department added some seldom-used stipulations that would allow oil and gas exploration and development to proceed in polar bear territories, as long as companies abide by existing restrictions under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The Bush administration continues to maintain it is under no obligation to address or try to mitigate the causes of melting sea ice that is threatening the bear. Mr. Kempthorne said, “When the Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, I don’t think terms like ‘climate change’ were part of our vernacular.” Barton H. Thompson Jr, director of the Woods Institute of the Environment at Stanford University, said the decision reflected the administration’s view that “there is no way, if your factory emits a greenhouse gas, that we can say there is a causal connection between that emission and an iceberg melting somewhere and a polar bear falling into the ocean.”

It should all have been so straightforward. There are about 25,000 polar bears, all dependent on a fragile and rapidly-changing environment. What’s the problem with giving them a little protection? Well, for a start, there’s a worrying lack of consensus on whether the polar bear is ‘endangered’ at all. Over all, scientists agree that rising temperatures will reduce Arctic ice and stress polar bears, which prefer seals they hunt on the floes. However, few foresee the species vanishing entirely for a century or more.

Of the 25,000 bears in the Arctic, 15,000 live in Canadian territory. A scientific study issued last month reported that four out of thirteen bear populations would probably decline by over 30% over the next 36 years, while the others would remain stable or increase. M. Reed Hopper of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights group based in Sacramento, called the decision to list the polar bear “unprecedented” and said his group would sue the Interior Department over the decision.

“Never before has a thriving species been listed [under the Endangered Species Act] nor should it be. The Endangered Species Act was not intended, nor does it allow, the listing of a thriving species. PLF is prepared to challenge this arbitrary listing of the polar bear. The polar bear is already among the most protected species in the world. According to the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act would provide ‘very little added protection.’

“This listing could have the effect of imposing severe restrictions on land use, job creation, and normal economic activity, not merely in Alaska but also – if global warming factors are cited in lawsuits based on the listing – throughout the lower 48 states.”

Meanwhile in Canada, management of bear populations is the responsibility of the various provinces and territories. The territorial government of Nunavut has campaigned against new US protection for the bear, concerned that lucrative local bear hunts run for US visitors will stop when trophy skins can no longer be taken home. John Baird, Canadian environment minister, said that the government would adopt an independent scientific panel’s recommendation to declare polar bears a species “of special concern,” a lower designation than endangered.

So there we are. One of the world’s most photogenic creatures has been granted ‘protection’ after a three-year legal battle, but little seems to have changed. We still want to dig up and pollute its hunting grounds, and we still want to kill it and hang its skin over the fireplace.

Rumours that the office of Vice President Dick Cheney had tried to block the listing of the bear are greatly exaggerated and, of course, completely unfounded.


4 Responses

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  1. Why Do We Care If Polar Bears Become Extinct?
    This is not any sort of revelation: Polar bears declared a threatened species , but it does raise the question: Why do we care? By some estimates, 90% of all species that once existed are now extinct and new species are always taking their place. For the species that’s going to become extinct, for whatever reason, extinction is the end of it. However, for the species that remain, is the extinction of another species good or bad. When Europeans first colonized North America, there was an estimated five (5) billion Passenger Pigeons alive and well in North America. In 1914, they were extinct. Passenger Pigeons didn’t live in little groups, but huge flocks that required extraordinary quantities of hardwood forests for them to feed, breed and survive. Deforestation to build homes, create farmland and over hunting for cheap food decimated their population. The westward drive to grow the United States in the 1800s and early 1900s was incompatible with the needs of the Passenger Pigeon and they literally could not survive in the new North America being carved out by the U.S. economy. The interesting thing about the Passenger Pigeon was the impact its extinction had on another species—man. That impact was essentially none. Man continued to find ways to feed himself through agriculture and other technologies and the United States and its citizens continued to prosper from the early 20th century till today. Whether or not Polar Bears become extinct because of Global Climate Change or other reasons, we need to address the larger question of: Do we care and why? One of the ways a nation, its citizens and the global community can answer that question is addressed by John A. Warden III in Thinking Strategically About Global Climate Change. He asks some interesting biodiversity questions in his post to include How Many Species Is the Right Number and Which Ones?

    Sun Tzu

    May 15, 2008 at 2:26 pm

  2. I care about polar bears because I like them and the world I live in would be much poorer without them. I take an active dislike to arguments such as yours which dismiss species extinction as a mere exercise in utility economics. Five billion dead passenger pigeons, and all you find “interesting” to talk about is the effect that atrocity had on humans? Disgusting.

    Pete Smith

    May 15, 2008 at 2:44 pm

  3. Oh yes. Sun Tzu, if that really is your name, I released your comment from the moderation queue because it contained a few points that readers might find amusing. Be aware, if you have another go at using this blog to advertise your ‘strategic thinking’ site, I’ll dump you straight in the trash.

    Be lucky.

    Pete Smith

    May 15, 2008 at 3:03 pm

  4. Of course they’re unfounded. Dick cheney would sooo not love to hunt and shoot a polar bear and have its head mounted on his wall.

    The clause is to there to protect the oil industry. Bloody loopholes. Global warming and drilling for oil are the main threats to the polar bear! Didn’t they recently sell some oil leases on prime polar bear habitats?


    May 17, 2008 at 1:31 am

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