There’s hope for polar bears, and other species at-risk due to global warming, if they are listed as a threatened or endangered species by the US Dept. of the Interior. The Bush administration, currently in violation of the Endangered Species Act for missing the deadline for a listing decision, has until May 15th based on a ruling by Judge Claudia Wilken. The decision to list the polar bear as an endangered species was due in January 2008, but the Bush administration claimed that they needed more time. After two more months passed without a decision, Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Dept. of the Interior to force them to make a ruling. According to Kassie Siegel who authored the scientific petition to protect polar bears:
“The polar bear needs protection now, which is why we asked a federal judge to end this delay… By May 15th, the polar bear should receive the protection it deserves under the Endangered Species Act, which is the first step towards saving the polar bear and the entire Arctic ecosystem from global warming.”
Judge Wilken ruled that the decision to list the polar bear on the endangered species list go into effect immediately, waiving the normal 30-day waiting period. This decision was based on a pending proposal to allow oil industry operations in the Chukchi Sea – a critical polar bear habitat. Federal protection under the Endangered Species Act will subject oil industry proposals to increased scrutiny. In addition, Senator John Kerry introduced a bill that would stop leasing and drilling activity in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas until the impacts of drilling on polar bears are fully understood. Though polar bears are at-risk due to disturbances in their habitat, global warming is a bigger threat. The IUCN cites global warming as the number one threat to polar bears; therefore, listing polar bears as an endangered species will be a landmark decision as polar bears will become the first species cited as endangered due to global warming.
The NRDC website explains why climate change is such a threat to polar bears:
Global warming, caused by the build up of man-made carbon dioxide, is causing Arctic sea ice to melt at an alarming rate. Over the past three decades, over a million square miles of sea ice — an area the size of Norway, Denmark and Sweden combined — has disappeared. This trend could prove catastrophic for the polar bear. Without protection, the polar bear could become the first mammal to lose 100 percent of its habitat to global warming.
The polar bear is considered a marine mammal — like walruses, seals and whales — because its main habitat is sea ice. They need that ice as a platform for hunting, for travel to denning areas to give birth, and for mating. As their sea ice melts and their food sources decline, polar bears are forced to swim further and further to ever-distant ice floes. During these extremely arduous swims, polar bears are increasingly drowning. And scientists predict that as the movement of sea ice increases, some bears will lose contact with a main body of ice and drift into unsuitable habitat, making it impossible to return.
As temperatures increase, scientists also expect that more rain will fall during the Arctic’s late winter and spring. Unseasonable rains have already caused the snowy dens that shelter polar bear mothers and their newborn cubs to collapse, killing all the bears inside. What’s more, as a result of the decrease in sea ice, polar bear females may not gain enough weight to reproduce cubs with enough insulating fat, jeopardizing their ability to survive.
In the spring of 2006, three adult female polar bears and one yearling were found dead. Two of these females had no fat stores and apparently starved to death. Even worse, scientists project that by 2012 — just five years from now — most female polar bears in Western Hudson Bay may not be able to reach the minimum 417 pounds of body mass needed to successfully reproduce. Some polar bears have even been recorded cannibalizing other bears, including a female polar bear in her maternal den. This extreme behavior has never been observed in decades of polar bear study.
Make your voice heard. There are a number of petitions online where you can let the Bush administration know that polar bears need protection. Sign them all!
NRDC – polar bear petition to support the Kerry bill
Polar bear central petition to stop global warming and preserve critical habitat (Canada)
Sierra club action alert for polar bear protection