U.S. Proposes Listing Polar Bears As Threatened Species
December 31, 2006
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne has announced the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list the polar bear as a
threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and initiating a
comprehensive scientific review to assess the current status and
future of the species.
The Service will use the next 12 months to gather more information,
undertake additional analyses, and assess the reliability of relevant
scientific models before making a final decision whether to list the
"Polar bears are one of nature's ultimate survivors, able to live and
thrive in one of the world's harshest environments," Kempthorne
said. "But we are concerned the polar bears' habitat may literally be
melting." "Based on current analysis, there are concerns about the
effect of receding sea ice on polar bear populations," he said. "I am
directing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological
Survey to aggressively work with the public and the scientific
community over the next year to broaden our understanding of what is
happening with the species. This information will be vital to the
ultimate decision on whether the species should be listed." Polar
bears are already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of
1972. Under that law, it is generally prohibited to (1) take or (2)
import marine mammals and their parts or products. The species is
also protected by international treaties involving countries in the
bear's range. In early December, Congress passed the United States-
Russia Polar Bear Conservation and Management Act of 2006,
implementing a treaty with Russia designed to conserve polar bears
shared between the two countries. President Bush is expected to sign
this legislation into law.
Today's proposal cites the threat to polar bear populations caused by
receding sea ice, which bears use as a platform to hunt for prey. In
recommending a proposed listing, the Fish and Wildlife Service used
scientific models that predict the impact of the loss of ice on bear
populations over the next few decades.
Scientific observations have revealed a decline in late summer Arctic
sea ice to the extent of 7.7 percent per decade and in the perennial
sea ice area of 9.8 percent per decade since 1978. Observations have
likewise shown a thinning of the Arctic sea ice of 32 percent from
the 1960s and 1970s to the 1990s in some local areas.
There are 19 polar bear populations in the circumpolar Arctic,
containing an estimated total of 20,000-25,000 bears. The western
Hudson Bay population of polar bears in Canada has suffered a 22
percent decline. Alaska populations have not experienced a
statistically significant decline, but Fish and Wildlife Service
biologists are concerned that they may face such a decline in the
Recent scientific studies of adult polar bears in Canada and in
Alaska's Southern Beaufort Sea have shown weight loss and reduced cub
survival. While data are lacking about many populations, the Service
suspects that polar bears elsewhere are being similarly affected by
the reduction of sea ice "We have sufficient scientific evidence of a
threat to the species to warrant proposing it for listing, but we
still have a lot of work to do to enhance our scientific models and
analyses before making a final decision," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service Director Dale Hall.
The Service extensively analyzed the impact of both onshore and
offshore oil and gas development on polar bears and determined they
do not pose a threat to the species.
The Service likewise examined the impact of subsistence harvest of
polar bears by Alaska Natives. Such harvest is specifically allowed
under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and would also be allowed if
the polar bear is listed under the Endangered Species Act, unless the
Service finds that the harvest is materially and negatively affecting
the polar bear. Harvesting polar bears is of great social, cultural
and economic importance to Native peoples throughout much of the
Arctic and maintaining a harvest within sustainable limits is one of
the department's priorities, Kempthorne noted.
While the proposal to list the species as threatened cites the threat
of receding sea ice, it does not include a scientific analysis of the
causes of climate change. That analysis is beyond the scope of the
Endangered Species Act review process, which focuses on information
about the polar bear and its habitat conditions, including reduced
However, climate change science and issues of causation are discussed
in other analyses undertaken by the Bush Administration. The
administration treats climate change very seriously and recognizes
the role of greenhouse gases in climate change.
The Service invites the public to submit data, information, and
comments on the proposed rule. Comments will be accepted on the
proposed rule for the next 90 days.
A copy of the proposed rule and other information about the proposal
is available on the Service's Marine Mammal website located at:
"Our goal ultimately is to combine the best science available with
the power of working hand-in-hand with states, tribes, foreign
countries, industry, and other partners to minimize the threats to
polar bears and conserve this great icon of the Arctic for future
generations," Kempthorne said.