Endangered Status Sought for Polar Bears
Endangered Status Sought for Polar Bears
The animal, which experts say is threatened by global warming, may
bring new attention to climate change and Alaska's wildlife refuge.
By Miguel Bustillo
Times Staff Writer
February 17, 2005
The polar bear, an icon of the great white north, is in peril, its
icy home melting beneath its paws, an environmental group argued
Wednesday in formally petitioning the Bush administration to grant
the animals protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which made the plea on the day
the Kyoto Protocol to address global warming went into effect without
the United States, said it did not believe the Bush administration
would agree with its 154-page argument.
But by drawing attention to the condition of polar bears, it hoped to
expand public awareness of the potentially calamitous consequences of
climate change, which include rising sea levels because of melting
ice caps and changing weather patterns around the globe. If the plea
to list the bears as threatened under the act is rejected by the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, the group vows, it will take its case to
"We hope it will have a big educational benefit to bring this to the
attention of the American public," said Kassie Siegel, the lead
author of the petition. "People do like polar bears, and in our view,
it is a fact that if the United States does not begin to reduce its
greenhouse gas emissions, polar bears will go extinct."
The move to protect polar bears could also benefit another
environmental cause celebre: the effort to block the Bush
administration's drive to drill for oil in the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge. The northern Alaskan coastline is a denning area for
many polar bears.
But the biggest consequence of a listing petition may be symbolic.
The charismatic, poster-friendly polar bears could help
environmentalists put a sympathetic face on the effects of global
Environmentalists have cited climate change as a factor in at least
two other petitions for endangered species protection: a type of
Caribbean coral and the Kittlitz's murrelet, a brown-and-white bird
that is most often found near glaciers.
Hugh Vickery, spokesman for the U.S. Department of the Interior, said
Fish and Wildlife officials would examine the petition and make a
recommendation based on scientific judgment as required. He noted
that polar bears already enjoyed some protections in the United
States, including safeguards under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection
"It is a very well-protected species, even if it is not protected
under the Endangered Species Act," he said.
Whether polar bears are worthy of Endangered Species Act listing is
certain to be a subject of fierce debate.
The estimated worldwide polar bear population has actually increased
in recent decades to around 25,000 to 30,000. But those gains are
attributed mainly to a 1973 pact among the United States, Canada,
Norway, Denmark and the Soviet Union that restricted hunting of the
More recent studies indicate that at least some of the world's 20
polar bear populations have been affected by warming trends in arctic
regions. Most notably, research in Canada's Hudson Bay has
demonstrated that the sea-ice season has been shortened by about 2
1/2 weeks, limiting the time polar bears have to prey on seals for
sustenance. When bears are forced from the ice back to land, they
typically fast for months, making the length of the ice season
critical to their survival.
The listing petition by the Center for Biological Diversity cites a
number of threats to polar bears, but calls global warming the chief
one. Other threats cited include the accumulation of industrial
pollutants such as PCBs in the bodies of polar bears and continued
over-hunting of the bears in parts of Canada, Greenland and Russia.
Scott L. Schliebe, head of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Polar Bear
Project in Anchorage, declined to offer an opinion on whether polar
bears needed more protection. But he said it was indisputable that
their ice habitat had been diminished. In the Beaufort Sea north of
Alaska and Canada, the change is driving bears to land during the
fall in much greater numbers than before, he said.
"We are seeing harbingers of change which are dictated by climate,"
Schliebe said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that [the
changes] could affect polar bears, which prey on the ice and have a
whole host of adaptations that have allowed them to flourish in that
environment. On the land, there is really nothing for them to eat."
Andrew E. Derocher, a biology professor at the University of Alberta
who specializes in polar bears, also said there was little scientific
doubt that the ecosystems in which the bears lived were being
dramatically altered by climate changes.
"It is quite clear to most people who have worked on polar bears that
the long-term future for bears does not appear very bright," Derocher
said. "The difficulty with this issue is that you are not talking
about a species-specific concern but a fundamental change in climate.
It is different than any other species problem we human beings have
Derocher said scientists still didn't know when bear populations
might begin to plummet if they ever do at all. But he believes that
clear evidence may not come until it is too late. He hopes the debate
over endangered species listing in the U.S. will serve as a catalyst
for human beings to more seriously consider climate change.
"Ultimately, I am an optimist and believe that humans will be able to
find some balance with the planet. But we need to find some common
solutions," he said. "Hopefully, the best polar bear biologists, the
climatologists and sea-ice specialists, will come together and
discuss the management questions, which really has not taken place."
On Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers have proposed limits on
greenhouse gas emissions and others have proposed reducing the scope
of the Endangered Species Act, reactions were sharply split.
"The potential listing of the polar bear as an endangered species
because of the effects of global warming should set off alarm bells
around the world," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who with Sen.
John McCain (R-Ariz.) has reintroduced legislation to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions.
Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the House Resources
Committee and a leading proponent of drilling in ANWR as well as
rewriting the Endangered Species Act, demurred.
"Given the rising number of polar bears in the Arctic, this appears
to be a public relations and fundraising stunt," Pombo said. "There
is certainly no credible reason to list them under the ESA."