U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Proposes to List Polar Bears as Endangered Species
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and initiate a comprehensive scientific review to assess the current status and future of the species.
The 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. The Service is concerned that polar bears’ habitats may literally be melting away and that receding sea ice is affecting polar bear populations.
The Department of the Interior has charged the Service and the U.S. Geological Survey to work with the public and the scientific community over the next year to broaden understanding of what is happening with the species. The information will help render a decision on whether the species should be listed.
Polar bears already are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Under that law, it is generally prohibited to take or import marine mammals and their parts or products.
International treaties involving countries in the bears’ range also protect the species. Last December, Congress passed the United States-Russia Polar Bear Conservation and Management Act of 2006, implementing a treaty with Russia designed to conserve polar bears shared between the two countries. President Bush is expected to sign this legislation into law.
The current proposal cites the threat to polar bear populations caused by receding sea ice, which bears use as a platform to hunt for prey. In recommending the proposed listing, the Fish and Wildlife Service used scientific models that predict the impact of the loss of ice on bear populations over the next few decades.
Scientific observations 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. Observations have likewise shown a thinning of the Arctic sea ice of 32 percent from the 1960s and 70s to the 1990s in some local areas.
There are 19 polar bear populations in the circumpolar Arctic, containing an estimated total of 20,000-25,000 bears.
The western Hudson Bay population of polar bears in Canada has suffered a 22 percent decline. Alaska populations have not experienced a statistically significant decline, but Fish and Wildlife Service biologists are concerned that they may face such a decline in the future.
Recent scientific studies of adult polar bears in Canada and in Alaska’s Southern Beaufort Sea have shown weight loss and reduced cub survival. While data are lacking about many populations, the Service suspects that polar bears elsewhere are being similarly affected by the reduction of sea ice.
The Service has extensively analyzed the impact of both onshore and offshore oil and gas development on polar bears and determined they do not pose a threat to the species.
The Service likewise examined the impact of subsistence harvest of polar bears by Alaska Natives. Such harvest is specifically allowed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and also would be allowed if the polar bear is listed under the Endangered Species Act, unless the Service finds that the harvest is materially and negatively affecting the polar bear.
Harvesting polar bears is of great social, cultural, and economic importance to Native peoples throughout much of the Arctic, says the Service, and maintaining a harvest within sustainable limits is a priority.
While the proposal to list the species as threatened cites the threat of receding sea ice, it does not include a scientific analysis of the causes of climate change. That analysis is beyond the scope of the Endangered Species Act review process, which focuses on information about the polar bear and its habitat conditions.
However, climate change science and issues of causation are discussed in other analyses undertaken by the Bush Administration. The administration treats climate change very seriously and recognizes the role of greenhouse gases in climate change.
The Service invites the public to submit data, information, and comments on the proposed rule. Comments will be accepted on the proposed rule until March 2007.