Polar bears gain listing as threatened

US decision stops short of endangered status.

Polar bears will be listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA), the secretary of the interior reluctantly announced today. But the listing will offer almost no new protections for the bears, which are threatened primarily by melting sea ice.

“I wish the decision could be otherwise,” Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said, calling the act “an inflexible law” that did not allow him to consider potential economic harm that could result from the listing. Instead, the law requires the decision to be based solely on the best available science — in this case, primarily a series of nine reports issued by the US Geological Survey (USGS) last September.

Shrinking Arctic sea ice is to blame. Credit: Getty

“Our reports, along with the rest of the body of research, suggested clearly that if sea ice continues to decline, the future of the polar bear was indeed threatened,” says Steve Amstrup of the USGS in Anchorage, Alaska, who led the effort.

On thin ice

Those reports found that sea ice is vital to polar bear survival and has declined dramatically in recent years. Furthermore, multiple climate models — chosen for their accuracy in describing observed declines in Arctic ice — predict that ice will continue to recede. Thin ice covering much of the Arctic Ocean is expected to melt entirely this summer, potentially leaving the North Pole free of ice, according to a projection by the National Snow and Ice Data Center posted earlier this month.

Although Kempthorne acknowledged on Wednesday that global warming has caused the retreat of Arctic ice, and that human activities had “some impact” on climate change, he said no link could be made between any individual power plant or effort to drill for gas or oil and the fate of the bear. “The loss of sea ice, not oil and gas exploration or subsistence activity, is the primary threat to the polar bear,” he said.

“It should not open the door to use the ESA to regulate greenhouse gases,” he added. “It is not the appropriate tool for addressing climate change.”

The designation will require federal agencies to consider risks to polar bears from any actions they allow and to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service if their activities might harm the bears. However, Kempthorne has invoked a section of the law that allows him to adopt existing rules and supersede the ESA, if those other rules are more strict. In the case of the bear, he says, any activity considered permissible by the Marine Mammal Protection Act — which focuses on keeping individual animals, as opposed to species, from harm — will be permitted under the Endangered Species Act.

The listing does automatically trigger a ban on importing trophy pelts from Canada to the United States, which had been allowed through an exception to the marine mammal law.

Pointing fingers

“It’s disturbing that at the same time the administration is finally acknowledging the impact of global warming, they are attempting to weasel out of doing anything about it,” says Andrew Wetzler, the Chicago-based director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s endangered species project. The council was one of three environmental groups to sue the department to list the bear.

The long-awaited decision comes months after the first legal deadline for making it, in January, and one day before a new deadline imposed by a federal court in response to the environmental groups’ suit.

Polar bears are the first species in the United States to be deemed likely to become endangered primarily as a result of global warming.

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Brown, S. Polar bears gain listing as threatened. Nature (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2008.828

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