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Endangered Status Sought for Polar Bears

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  • Mike Neuman
    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na- polar17feb17,0,5705416.story?coll=la-home-nation Endangered Status Sought for Polar Bears The animal,
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 3, 2005
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      polar17feb17,0,5705416.story?coll=la-home-nation


      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
      court.

      "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
      warming.

      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
      Act.

      "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
      animals.

      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
      faced."

      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."
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