Dec 9, 2013
Politicizing the Polar Bear
Posted on Jun 30, 2008
But back in December 2006, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was proposing to list the polar bear as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act and initiated a scientific review to determine the status of the species. Everyone agrees that the Arctic ice pack is shrinking, and it therefore stands to reason that the bears that rely on it should somehow be protected. In 1972, President Nixon called on Congress to pass comprehensive endangered species legislation. Congress responded by creating the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which was signed into law on Dec. 28, 1973. That same year saw the creation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement restricting international commerce in plant and animal species believed to be actually or potentially harmed by trade. The U.S. CITES list includes all species protected by the ESA in addition to species that are vulnerable but not yet threatened or endangered. The stated purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to protect species and also “the ecosystems upon which they depend.” Listing the polar bear, with its diminishing population and its disappearing habitat, would seem to be a no-brainer, but there are some people in Alaska and elsewhere who disagree.
If the polar bear is listed as endangered, subsistence hunting and oil prospecting (not to mention oil drilling) would have an adverse effect on the bears and would be prohibited under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. “The state of Alaska,” wrote Tom Kizzia in the Anchorage Daily News (Sept. 8, 2007), “fearing consequences for subsistence hunting and oil production, has strenuously opposed a federal threatened-species listing, arguing, among other things, that bear populations have been stable and that too much uncertainty surrounds global warming trends.” But there is no uncertainty in the 2006 report by James Hansen et al., in which they stated that in the past 30 years average world surface temperatures have increased 0.2 degrees C per decade, but parts of the Arctic have experienced tenfold the average warming. The U.S. Geological Survey Reports that Secretary Kempthorne requested have now been issued, and the overall conclusion reads as follows:
It’s much worse than we thought. “Ultimately,” the report concludes, “we projected a 42% loss of optimal bear habitat during summer in the polar basin by mid century.” And no, the bears will not fare well converting to land-based hunting; they are poorly equipped for chasing reindeer or musk oxen, and besides, those herbivores do not provide the high-calorie nutrition that the bears need. Listing the polar bear as endangered will not cool the Arctic and stop the ice from melting, but encouraging sport hunting and oil drilling in the bears’ Alaska habitat will speed them along the slippery slope toward extinction.
The U.S. government is not likely to heed such editorials, and two days after publication of the New York Times opinion the Minerals and Management Service announced that it would seek bids for petroleum licenses in the Chukchi Sea on Feb. 6. Under consideration is a 46,000-square-mile area between Alaska and the coast of the Russian Far East, which is said to hold 15 billion gallons of recoverable oil and a huge volume of natural gas. It is also the home of one of the main populations of polar bears in U.S. and Russian territory, as well as large walrus herds. In response to the announcement, Margaret Williams of the WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) said, “The chances for survival of this icon of the Arctic will be greatly diminished if its last remaining critical habitat is turned into a vast oil and gas field.” Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco responded to the announcement even more dramatically, saying, “The polar bear is in need of intensive care, but with this lease sale the Bush administration is threatening to burn down the hospital.”
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