Burgeoning Polar Bear Population Listed as Threatened

Terence P. Jeffrey | Editor in Chief | Thursday, May 15, 2008

Burgeoning Polar Bear Population Listed as Threatened

(CNSNews.com) - Even though polar bears have more than doubled in number in recent decades, the federal government has decided to list the bears as a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said at a press conference on Wednesday.

The listing means the government believes the polar bear population is in danger of diminishing to such a small number in the foreseeable future that it could be in danger of extinction.

Kempthorne said the government is basing its prediction on computer models designed to estimate how much ice there might be on the Arctic Ocean in decades to come.

"Although the population of bears has grown from a low of about 12,000 in the late 1960s to approximately 25,000 today, our scientists advise me that computer modeling projects a significant population decline by the year 2050," Kempthorne said. "This, in my judgment, makes the polar bear a threatened species--one likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future." (See Kempthorne's statement)

Kempthorne noted that Arctic sea ice has been declining in recent years, even as the bear population has been growing. He said the government believes that the polar bear population is dependent on Arctic sea ice as its habitat, and that if government projections about future declines in the sea ice prove true, the bear population could die off.

"Today's decision is based on three findings," Kempthorne said, explaining the government's logic. "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."

During his presentation, Kempthorne showed illustrations of the polar ice cap, based on satellite photos of the Arctic region. (See ice-cap illustrations)

The sequential images, representing the region at the end of the summers of 1979, 1989, 1999, and 2007, showed a dramatic decrease in the expanse of permanent ice on the Arctic Sea.

At the same time, Kempthorne released the Interior Department's "Final Rule" listing the polar bear as threatened. The 368-page document explains the rationale behind the government's conclusion that global warming is causing the global ice cap to melt, and that this, in turn, threatens the polar bears.

The "Final Rule" also includes a more detailed explanation of the government's understanding of the existing polar bear population. Of 19 "discrete" polar bear populations, it asserts, two are "increasing," six are "stable," five are "declining," and six remain beyond the government's ability to calculate and are "designated as data deficient."

The document also says the government made "a subjective assessment" for some of the polar bear populations for which it did estimate a "trend."

"In some instances," said the document, "a subjective assessment of [the polar bear population] trend has been provided in the absence of either a monitoring program or estimates of population size developed for more than one point in time." (See polar bear "Final Rule")

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Environment Committee and a critic of global warming theory, was highly critical of the decision to list the polar bear as threatened.

"Unfortunately, the decision to list the polar bear as 'threatened' appears to be based more on politics than science," Inhofe said in a statement.

"With the number of polar bears substantially up over the past forty years, the decision announced today appears to be based entirely on unproven computer models," he said. "The decision, therefore, is simply a case of reality versus unproven computer models, the methodology of which has been challenged by many scientists and forecasting experts. If the models are invalid, then the decision based on them is not justified. It's disappointing that Secretary Kempthorne failed to stand up to liberal special interest groups who advocated this listing."

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity, which had petitioned the government to list the bear as threatened, praised the basic decision.

"This decision is a watershed event because it has forced the Bush administration to acknowledge global warming's brutal impacts," Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

However, the environmental groups attacked the Bush administration's determination that the listing of the polar bear could not be used as a pretext to regulate carbon emissions as a means of combating global warming.

"The administration's attempts to reduce protection to the polar bear from greenhouse gas emissions are illegal and won't hold up in court," said Siegel.

"Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears," said Kempthorne. "But it should not open the door to use the ESA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants, and other sources. That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the Endangered Species Act. ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy."

At the same time, Kempthorne praised the administration's efforts to promote alternative fuel use in the United States.

"This Administration has taken real action to deal with the challenges of climate change," he said. "The Administration and the private sector plan to dedicate nearly a billion dollars to clean coal research and development. Our incentives for power production from wind and solar energy have helped to more than quadruple its use. We have worked with Congress to make available more than $40 billion in loan guarantees to support investments that will avoid, reduce, or sequester greenhouse gas emissions or air pollutants."

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