Polar bears endangered but not the climate

By on May 17th, 2008

(The Canadian Press) WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is listing polar bears as a threatened species but won’t address the thorny issue of global warming that’s causing the decline of their Arctic habitats.

No protection for the climate
The new designation obliges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to devise a protection plan for the bears, but limits on greenhouse gas emissions or constraints on oil and gas projects won’t be part of it. Global warming is the major factor threatening polar bears, said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, but the Endangered Species Act is an “inappropriate” tool for setting U.S. climate policy.

“This listing will not stop global climate change or prevent sea ice from melting,” he told a news conference. “It’s not something that one continent can do by itself. We need to have the major economies of the world have these discussions.”

Kempthorne acknowledged the decision won’t be popular among environmentalists but said he can’t make a direct link between the species and carbon dioxide emissions.

Oil and gas are off the hook
The decision spares potential complications for Canadian energy projects like Alberta’s oilsands that produce a higher amount of greenhouse gases.

But the United States will no longer allow imports of polar bear trophies, likely reducing sports hunts in Nunavut, where Inuit guides charge Americans up to $30,000 to shoot one of the animals. The measure was triggered by regulations under the U.S. act, although the wildlife service concluded hunting isn’t a “substantial” threat to the bear population.

Inuit communities will suffer
Losing American trophy hunters will mean an immediate loss of about $2.5 million for five struggling Nunavut communities, said Gabriel Nirlungayuk, wildlife director for the territory’s native land claims organization in Rankin Inlet.

“As long as you’re in the oil and gas business you won’t get affected but if you’re a hunter in a small community you get hit. It’s hard to understand. These communities don’t have deep pockets.”

It’s especially disheartening, Nirlungayuk said, because the Inuit have been co-operating for decades with government biology experts to set an annual quota for the bears — about 400 in 2008. “All the work that we’ve done, it seems to be all for naught.”
There are about 25,000 polar bears in the world, up from 12,000 in the late 1960s, said Kempthorne. Some 15,000 are in Canada.

Science of prediction

But the latest science, including data from the U.S. Geological Survey, indicates they are likely to become in danger of extinction within the next 45 years due to receding sea ice. Computer models indicated the polar bear’s primary habitat will decline more than 30 per cent by the middle of the century, reducing the population by two-thirds. And sea ice trends over the last 30 years indicate the models may actually understate the change rate.

“Sound science did prevail,” said Peter Ewins, director of species conservation for World Wildlife Fund Canada. “Congratulations are due. It could have easily gone the other way.”

Canada should take note, said Ewin, and take steps to implement conservation plans for oil-related accidents before the habitat of polar bears in the Beaufort Sea is sold off for exploration on June 2. “It’s going to take strong leadership to turn it around or Canada is really going to be out of step.”

Kempthorne, who met last week with Canada’s Environment Minister John Baird, noted Canada hasn’t listed polar bears as threatened even through it has two-thirds of the world’s population.

Polar bears not endangered in Canada
The Canadian committee overseeing endangered wildlife has said it will recommend the bears remain as a species of special concern. That would give Canada until 2014 to devise a management plan to address threats to the animal’s survival, including climate change.

“Everyone of us took great notice of that,” said Kempthorne, who noted there’s no similar middle-ground category for wildlife in the U.S.

Baird is expected to make a decision on the animal’s status in Canada later this year. President George W. Bush, who recently called for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, said last month the Endangered Species Act was never intended to regulate climate change.

Kempthorne said he consulted with the White House but insisted there was no pressure on him. “At no time was there ever a suggestion that this was not my decision,” he said, adding that Bush told him: “You do what you need to do. Everyone was thankful they weren’t in my shoes.”