Polar bears: “threatened” or “endangered”?


Surviving in the Arctic / U.S. Geological Survey photo

On December 22 the Obama administration reaffirmed a Bush-era decision that listed the polar bear as “threatened,” rather than the more protective “endangered,” under the Endangered Species Act.  The Department of the Interior says the polar bear does not qualify as “endangered” because it is not “on the brink” of extinction —  a standard that is not contained in the Endangered Species Act.  Our friends at the Center for Biological Diversity charge that the administration is sacrificing sound science for political expediency.

The Washington Post reported on December 22:

Polar bears will continue as ‘threatened,’ not ‘endangered’

The Obama administration reaffirmed Wednesday its decision to designate polar bears as a “threatened,” not “endangered,” species, in defiance of the wishes of conservationists who say the bears are in danger of extinction because their arctic hunting grounds are melting.

The administration was under a court-imposed deadline to decide whether it would upgrade the bears’ status to “endangered.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told a U.S. District Court judge Wednesday that the threatened designation will not change because polar bears were not considered to be in danger of extinction at the time of the listing in 2008.

“The Service explained how its biologists had concluded in 2008 that the polar bear was not facing sudden and catastrophic threats [and] was still a widespread species that had not been restricted to a critically small range or critically low numbers,” the agency said in a statement.

Threatened species receive most of the same regulatory protections as those listed under the Endangered Species Act, including a requirement that federal agencies refrain from actions that might jeopardize their existence or destroy or harm their habitat. …

The Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council issued this statement on December 23 in response to the new decision:

“The Obama administration delivered a lump of coal to the polar bear for Christmas,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center’s Climate Law Institute and lead author of the 2005 petition to federally protect the polar bear. “Once again President Obama’s Interior Department has sacrificed sound science for political expediency, and the polar bear will suffer as a result.”

“I guess if a wrecking ball is barreling down on your house, you are just ‘threatened’…it might change course,” said Andrew Wetzler, Director of the Land & Wildlife Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.  “The administration missed an opportunity. We are convinced that is wrong and any reasonable definition of ‘endangered species’ includes the polar bear.”

“Unfortunately, rather than acknowledge the plight of the polar bear, the Obama administration continued its head-in-sand approach to species protection in the face of global warming,” said Melanie Duchin of Greenpeace. “Ultimately, we are confident the court will do what the Obama administration failed to do — give polar bears the legal protection to which they are entitled and which they need.”

Note on the polar bear photo above:

The U.S. Geological Survey website provides the following description of the photo  above (emphasis added):

Title: Surviving in the Arctic
Description: This image is of two polar bears cuddled together on a piece of Arctic sea ice, surrounded by ocean water and thin layers of sea ice. This image allows for a deeper understanding of the endangered species and highlights the need for USGS research to help in their protection.

Earlier posts:

Arctic seals listed as threatened by climate change; polar bears get critical habitat designation

Environmental groups force “critical habitat” designation for polar bears, despite Palin’s lawsuit

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3 Responses to Polar bears: “threatened” or “endangered”?

    • Chris Saunders says:

      If the estimates of the polar bear population is 20,000 to 25,00, which is up from less than 10,000 in the 1960’s. Why should Polar Bears receive an endangered label? A threatened label makes sense due to the potential for climate change to eliminate habitat. Until that happens, why change it? Canada gives 800 legal polar bear hunting permits every year to ensure healthy population levels. An endangered label from the US and Canada could actually be detrimental to the health of the polar bear population.

      • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

        But also consider:

        The Center for Biological Diversity summarizes key studies and observations documenting climate change impacts to polar bears, including:

        Polar bear populations are declining:
        •The Polar Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN determined that 8 of 19 of the world’s polar bear populations are declining, 3 are stable, 1 is increasing, and the status of 7 is unknown (Obbard et al. 2010).
        •The Western Hudson Bay population declined by 22% between 1987 to 2004, which was attributed to earlier sea-ice breakup in spring, shortening the time that bears can hunt on the ice (Regehr et al. 2007).
        •The Southern Beaufort Sea population appears to have declined from an estimated 1,800 bears in 1986 to 1,526 bears in 2006, which has been attributed to loss of sea ice (Obbard et al. 2010).

        Polar bear survival and reproductive success are declining as sea ice disappears:
        •Female survival, breeding rates, and cub litter survival declined as the ice-free period increased during 2001 to 2006 in the Southern Beaufort Sea (Regehr et al. 2010).
        •The survival of juvenile, subadult and older bears declined from 1984 to 2004 in the Western Hudson Bay, which was linked to earlier sea-ice breakup (Regehr et al. 2007).
        •The survival of polar bears of all age classes in the Northern Beaufort Sea decreased with declines in the sea-ice concentration over shelf waters in the Northern Beaufort Sea (Stirling et al. 2011).

        Also (see the link above for specifics and citations):
        Declines in polar bear body size linked to nutritional stress
        Degradation of denning habitat due to sea-ice loss and increasing coastal erosion
        Starvation and fasting
        Increased long-distance swimming and drowning linked to sea-ice loss
        Desperate hunting behaviors linked to nutritional stress
        Bears are being forced onto land due to sea-ice loss and must wait longer to begin hunting on the ice
        More bears are entering human settlements due to nutritional stress and are being shot

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