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

Los Angeles Times

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."