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Polar Bears Being Considered for U.S. Endangered List

John Roach
for National Geographic News
February 10, 2006
 
The Bush Administration yesterday kicked off a process to determine
whether polar bears should be added to the United States endangered
species list because their habitat is melting.

The action is "a significant acknowledgement of what global warming is doing to the Arctic ice," said Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in Joshua Tree, California.

In December the conservation group, along with Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued the U.S. government to protect the world's polar bears from extinction.

According to the conservationists, Earth's steadily rising temperature is causing the polar bear's habitat to melt. Many scientists say the warming is due, in part, to human activities such as driving cars and burning coal, which release heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere,

If the bears are given federal protection, they would be the first U.S. mammals officially deemed to be in danger of extinction because of global warming, the conservation groups said.

Rosa Meehan, the chief of marine-mammal protection at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, Alaska, said the conservation groups presented sufficient information to merit a close look at the status of polar bears.

"It doesn't mean that we are going to list them or that we're not," she said. "We know things are changing. We know a lot more about polar bears than we did a few years ago. We need to review their status."

The Fish and Wildlife Service will spend the next 12 months examining scientific evidence about the changing Arctic environment and how it is affecting polar bears.

Life on the Ice

Polar bears live only in the Arctic, the northernmost region of Earth (see Arctic photos).

The bears, which can grow to about 8 feet (2.5 meters) long, depend on sea ice for their survival. They hunt their primary prey, the ringed seal, from the ice. They also travel, mate, and sometimes give birth on the ice.

But the ice is melting.

Scientists with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, reported that in September 2005 the sea ice had shrunk to its lowest level on record.

If the melting trend continues, the Arctic could see ice-free summers by 2040, according to a Canadian climate model. Other models suggest open Arctic waters by the end of the century. (See "Arctic Ice Levels at Record Low, May Keep Melting, Study Warns.")

Bears in some areas spend the summer months on land. They fast until the ice forms in the fall, when they can use the ice as a vast platform from which to hunt the seas.

Studies of the polar bear populations around the western coast of Canada's Hudson Bay (map) show that this wait, and the bears' period of fasting, has increased by three weeks since the 1970s.

The population there is noticeably skinnier now, scientists say, and has declined by 15 percent in the last decade.

In northern Alaska the U.S. Minerals Management Service has concluded that some polar bears are drowning as they try to swim increasingly long distances between the ice and land.

The federal agency documented four drowned bears that had tried to swim a record 160-mile (257-kilometer) gap in September 2004.

The worldwide polar bear population is between 20,000 and 25,000, scientists estimate.

"We are not going to lose the polar bears," said Terry Root, an ecologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

"We will always have individuals around in zoos and places like that, but we are going to lose the natural behavior of polar bears," she said.

"We are so strongly affecting their habitat, their way of life, that they are going to have to basically become very similar to raccoons [which rely heavily on humans for survival], in the sense they are not going to be able to feed the way they have fed before, on seals and off the ice."

Today encounters between humans and polar bears are increasing on land, because the bears are stranded by the retreating ice, explained Meehan, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

To combat the problem, the Fish and Wildlife Service is working with oil and gas companies and villagers to develop "strategies for people to be safe in bear country," Meehan said.

Some companies employ specially trained bear watchers to shoo the animals away.

Climate Politics

Environmental groups often criticize the Bush Administration for ignoring scientific evidence of global climate change. Now many evangelical Christians, who are often considered administration allies, are joining the critics.

The day before the White House announced it would study whether polar bears warrant protection, more than 85 evangelical Christian leaders urged the federal government to clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions.

The statement, released by the Evangelical Climate Initiative reads, "Many of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that climate change is a real problem and that it ought to matter to us as Christians. But now we have seen and heard enough. … "

Among the signers were Rick Warren, the author of the best-selling The Purpose Driven Life, and W. Todd Bassett, the U.S. national commander of the Salvation Army.

Siegel, the Center for Biological Diversity attorney, said the decision to conduct a status review of polar bears forces the Bush Administration to examine the very science on climate change it has "questioned, denied, and downplayed."

If the polar bears are given protection, federal agencies will be required to consider how their decisions affect polar bears. For example the listing of polar bears could impact a coal plant seeking federal permission to emit heat-trapping gases or an automaker seeking to sell a gas-guzzling car.

For Meehan, the biologist, the process is about the polar bears, not the politics.

"I care about polar bears. That's why I'm a wildlife biologist," Meehan said. "It's important to me personally and professionally to do the best we can for the polar bears."

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