Polar Bears Listed as 'Threatened'

This is the first time that a species has been listed under the Endanagered Species Act in US, as a direct result of Global Warming. The polar bear depends on sea ice, as part of its habitat, and the sea ice is melting! No doubt, there will be more debate on this subject after today's historic announcement.....

Polar Bears Listed as 'Threatened'

Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer

Wednesday, May 14, 200

(05-14) 12:59 PDT WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced Wednesday that the U.S. government will list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, making it the first animal species to win protections because of threats from global warming.

The Arctic sea ice is vital to the bear's survival, its habitat has dramatically melted and computer models show that the pack ice is likely to continue melting in the foreseeable future, Kempthorne said.

Environmental groups had pressed the Bush administration to list the polar bear in hope that it would force the U.S. government to pass restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions from factories, utilities and vehicles, saying that strategy is the only way to avoid the harshest effects of climate change.

But Kempthorne made it clear that the Bush administration wouldn't use the the act to limit emissions on industrial sources or otherwise regulate greenhouse gases. The law and science wouldn't allow it because direct connections couldn't be made between greenhouse gas emissions and harm to the polar bear, he said.

"We know Earth is warming. We know man is a factor in that. But we cannot tell you to what extent," said Kempthorne.

"The habitat for the polar bear is declining. That's what triggered this. But the Endangered Species Act is not the vehicle to deal with global climate change," Kempthorne said. Such policy changes would have to come from elected leaders and nations worldwide, he said.

Kempthorne and other administration officials also denied that oil and gas exploration or subsistence hunting have harmed polar bears. He is asking U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with guidance in what new protections would be put in place for the bear, including protecting denning for pregnant bears if they come to land or preventing interfaces between humans and bears where the animals might have to be destroyed.

Dale Hall, head of Fish and Wildlife Service, said listing the bear would put an end to the importation into the United States from Canada of polar bear parts by sport hunters. According to Interior Department records, since 1997, the U.S. government has issued 967 permits to hunters bringing in parts of dead polar bears from Canada.

But the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits importation of depleted species, and the new listing puts the polar bear in that category.

In the last 30 years of satellite monitoring by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the pack ice has declined in the Arctic summer months as temperatures in the atmosphere have risen. Last September shattered all records with the lowest levels of sea ice since satellite measurements began in 1979. The average September 2007 sea ice was 39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000.

There are an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears living in the Arctic in the United States, Canada, Norway, Russia and Greenland, a territory of Denmark.

Opponents of listing the bear, including representatives from the oil and gas industry, had argued that the population of Arctic polar bears is a healthy one, and there is no solid evidence of damage from a changing climate.

But predictions from the U.S. Geological Survey and other research agencies contributing to assessments released by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict dire scenarios for the bear, one of the most beloved members of world wildlife. Their sea ice habitat could be completely melted during the summertime by mid-century, if not sooner.

Most polar bears don't come to the land at all if the sea ice is strong, even choosing to bear young on the ice. Unlike black and brown bears, polar bears don't hibernate through the winter but continue to feed on the sea ice.

Studies by U.S. and Canadian scientists show that as the area of open ocean grows between the floating ice and the land - and sea ice thins and becomes less stable - bears swim to land and stay for longer periods of time. On land, they have a harder time finding food and staying out of danger than they do on the sea ice where they hunt for walrus, seals and other marine mammals.

The Canada bears already have been shown to give birth to less well-nourished and fewer offspring on land. U.S. scientists conducting overflights with Minerals Management Service have reported seeing floating dead polar bears, which they attributed to drowning when tried to swim the great distances to reach shore.

E-mail Jane Kay at jkay@sfchronicle.com.


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