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Polar Bear Protection Program

Arctic animals listed as threatened species in the U.S.

By Laura Leigh Davidson | May 16 , 2008
Photo of polar bears taken along the Beaufort Sea Coastline of Alaska. (Photo: Susanne Miller/USFWS)
Photo of polar bears taken along the Beaufort Sea Coastline of Alaska. (Photo: Susanne Miller/USFWS)

After months of consideration, the U.S. government has officially listed the polar bear as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne outlined the landmark decision on Wednesday.

"Today's decision is based on three findings," Kempthorne said. "First, sea ice is vital to polar bear survival. Second, the polar bear's sea-ice habitat has dramatically melted in recent decades. Third, computer models suggest sea ice is likely to further recede in the future."

Warming temperatures in the Arctic region where most polar bears live have caused the sea ice to melt. Polar bears depend on the seals they hunt on the ice for their main source of food. The bears also travel, mate, and even give birth on the sea ice.

"Because polar bears are vulnerable to this loss of habitat, they are—in my judgment—likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future," Kempthorne said.

The scientific analysis and recommendation to list the bears as threatened came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

An Endangered First

This is the first time the ESA has been used to protect a species whose habitat is disappearing due to global warming. Global warming is caused by an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are released when humans burn fossil fuels like coal, fuel oil, and natural gas.

Conservation groups and scientists who champion the polar bears' cause have called for laws that provide specific limits to emission of greenhouse gases. They believe these limits could slow global warming, and help stop the sea ice from melting.

But Kempthorne says the science he based his decision on does not support a direct link between the danger to polar bears and the activities that release greenhouse gases.

"Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears," he explained. "But it should not open the door to use the ESA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants, and other sources."

So How Will the Polar Bear Be Protected?

The ESA protects species and habitats from activities that might harm them. Exactly what specific protections will be given to the polar bears is still undecided.

Margaret Williams of the global conservation organization World Wildlife Fund said the ESA listing is important for protecting polar bears.

"The ESA listing will require that critical habitat be identified [and] that a recovery plan be put into place, and those are important steps forward," she said.

The ESA defines critical habitat as ecosystem elements that must be present and properly functioning to assure a species can survive.

Williams believes addressing global warming is key to the polar bears' survival.

"The bottom line is that climate change and warming temperatures are changing the Arctic dramatically, and that is the overall issue we need to address," she said.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Learn more about how environmental changes affect the world in this special report.

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