Saturday, October 30, 2010

Polar bears should be listed as endangered species

On Oct. 20, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ordered the Obama administration to clarify a Bush-era decision that polar bears are not in imminent danger of extinction but rather just threatened. The decision went against the prevailing view of the scientific community, which predicts a dramatic decline in polar bear populations within our lifetimes due to climate change.

Rising temperatures and the ever-dwindling ice upon which the bears live are putting these iconic animals at risk of disappearing completely. The Obama administration now has the ability to make clear that the science supports listing the polar bear as endangered, which would afford the bear more protection.

Protecting the polar bear means investing in the Arctic’s future. It is the poster child for America’s Arctic but its fate is merely a preview of what’s to come. Beyond being iconic and powerful animals, the large carnivore is an indicator species for the health of the Arctic ecosystem.
Estimates indicate that there are only 20,000 polar bears left in the wild. Experts estimate that that population could dwindle to a mere third of its size by mid-century. By the end of the century — that is, within our children’s’ lifetime — polar bears could become completely extinct.

Polar bears hunt by standing on floating ice sheets and then diving into the water to capture prey, an activity that clearly only works when there is ice to stand upon. During the past few years, the ice has decline dramatically resulting in significant numbers of dead bears. Part of this is due to drowning as the distance between ice sheets has gotten farther and farther apart, forcing bears to swim for miles between sheets of ice.

At the same time, drilling for oil in the Arctic has put added pressure on polar bears. Drilling means noise, human activity, and the inevitable oil spills that drive bears away and poison their habitat. Protecting polar bears means tackling climate change as well as restricting oil and gas development in polar bear habitat.

Though former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced in 2008 that the polar bear would be listed as threatened, he made sure that the listing would not affect U.S. climate policy, exempting greenhouse gas emissions and oil development from regulation under the Endangered Species Act, even though those are the two main threats to the bears.

In March 2009, Congress gave Interior Secretary Ken Salazar the power to correct Kempthorne’s mistake. Unfortunately, Salazar chose not to use his authority to protect the polar bear. Judge Emmet Sullivan’s recent ruling is a final chance for the Obama administration to get this one right. Polar bears are one of the first species to feel the negative effects of climate change, but if we don’t act now, they will not be the last.

Listing the polar bear as endangered will show that the Obama administration is serious about the value of science, it will show that we value our country’s wild legacy, and it will demonstrate that the U.S. takes the threat of climate change seriously and is ready to take action to prevent its most damaging effects.

Matt Kirby is a member of the Sierra Club.

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