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Bush administration proposes to list polar bears as threatened

Dec. 27, 2006
Special to World Science  

The U.S. Fish and Wild­life Serv­ice is pro­pos­ing to list the po­lar bear as a threat­ened spe­cies un­der the U.S. En­dan­gered Spe­cies Act, the In­te­ri­or De­part­ment an­nounced Wed­nes­day.

Courtesy Dave Olsen, USFWS


Sec­re­tary of the In­te­ri­or Dick Kemp­thorne cit­ed cli­mate change as a key rea­son for the threat to po­lar bears. 

The state­ment prompted en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists to see in the move a pos­si­bly ma­jor de­par­ture from the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s past in­at­ten­tion to the glob­al warm­ing threat.

“Po­lar bears are one of na­ture’s ul­ti­mate sur­vivors, able to live and thrive in one of the world’s harsh­est en­vi­ron­ments,” said Kemp­thorne. “But we are con­cerned the po­lar bears’ hab­i­tat may lit­er­al­ly be melt­ing.”

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists hoped that rec­og­ni­tion of the threat would mean the U.S. gov­ern­ment would beg­in to force pol­luters to lim­it emis­sions of green­house gas­es, which sci­en­tists see as large­ly re­spon­si­ble for the cli­mate change. In­dus­t­ri­al ac­tiv­i­ties and au­to­mo­biles are key sources of the gas­es.

The pro­pos­al is “a vic­to­ry for the po­lar bear, and all wild­life threat­ened by glob­al warm­ing,” said Kassie Siegel, a law­yer for the Tuc­son, Ariz.-based Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­si­ty.

A study pub­lished this month sug­gested Arc­tic sum­mers could be near­ly ice-free by 2040, a dis­as­ter for po­lar bears and oth­er spe­cies that live on the ice. 

The Fish and Wild­life Serv­ice will use the next year to gath­er more in­for­ma­tion be­fore de­ci­ding wheth­er to list the spe­cies, Kemp­thorne said.

“I am di­rect­ing the U.S. Fish and Wild­life Serv­ice and the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey to ag­gres­sive­ly work with the pub­lic and the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty over the next year to broad­en our un­derstanding of what is hap­pen­ing with the spe­cies. This in­for­ma­tion will be vi­tal to the ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion on wheth­er the spe­cies should be list­ed,” Kemp­thorne said.

The pro­pos­al cites the threat to po­lar bear pop­u­la­tions caused by re­ced­ing sea ice, which bears use as a plat­form to hunt for prey. 

Stud­ies have re­vealed a de­cline in late sum­mer Arc­tic sea ice to the ex­tent of 7.7 pe­r­cent per dec­ade and in the pe­rennial sea ice ar­ea of 9.8 pe­r­cent per dec­ade since 1978, Kemp­thorne said. Ob­ser­va­tions have like­wise shown a thin­ning of the Arc­tic sea ice of 32 pe­r­cent from the 1960s and 1970s to the 1990s in some lo­cal ar­e­as.

There are 19 po­lar bear pop­u­la­tions in the Arc­tic, con­tain­ing an es­ti­mat­ed to­tal of 20,000-25,000 bears. 

“We have suf­fi­cient sci­en­tif­ic ev­i­dence of a threat to the spe­cies to war­rant pro­pos­ing it for list­ing, but we still have a lot of work to do to en­hance our sci­en­tif­ic mod­els and anal­y­ses be­fore mak­ing a fi­nal de­ci­sion,” said U.S. Fish and Wild­life Serv­ice Di­rec­tor Dale Hall.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion treats cli­mate change very se­ri­ous­ly and rec­og­nizes the role of green­house gas­es in cli­mate change,” the In­te­ri­or De­part­ment said in its state­ment an­nounc­ing the pro­pos­al Wednes­day. 


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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Interior Department announced Wednesday. Secretary of the Interior Dick Kempthorne cited climate change as a key reason for the threat to polar bears. The statement prompted environmentalists to see in the move a possibly major departure from the Bush administration’s past inattention to the global warming threat. “Polar bears are one of nature’s ultimate survivors, able to live and thrive in one of the world’s harshest environments,” said Kempthorne. “But we are concerned the polar bears’ habitat may literally be melting.” Environmentalists hoped that the recognition of the threat would mean the U.S. government would begin to force polluters to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, which scientists see as largely responsible for the climate change. Indus trial activities and automobiles are two key sources of the gases. A study published this month suggested Arctic summers could be nearly ice-free by 2040, a disaster for polar bears and other species that live on the ice. The Fish and Wildlife Service will use the next 12 months to gather more information, undertake additional analyses, and assess the reliability of relevant scientific models before making a final decision whether to list the species, Kempthorne said. “I am directing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey to aggressively work with the public and the scientific community over the next year to broaden our understanding of what is happening with the species. This information will be vital to the ultimate decision on whether the species should be listed,” Kempthorne said. The proposal cites the threat to polar bear populations caused by receding sea ice, which bears use as a platform to hunt for prey. Studies have revealed a decline in late summer Arctic sea ice to the extent of 7.7 percent per decade and in the perennial sea ice area of 9.8 percent per decade since 1978, Kempthorne said. Observations have likewise shown a thinning of the Arctic sea ice of 32 percent from the 1960s and 1970s to the 1990s in some local areas. There are 19 polar bear populations in the Arctic, containing an estimated total of 20,000-25,000 bears. “We have sufficient scientific evidence of a threat to the species to warrant proposing it for listing, but we still have a lot of work to do to enhance our scientific models and analyses before making a final decision,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall. “The admin istration treats climate change very seriously and recognizes the role of greenhouse gases in climate change,” the Interior Department said in its statement announcing the proposal Wednesday.