Polar Bears to Remain as Threatened Species

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Polar Bear

©Steve Morello/WWF-US

On 22 December 2010, the Obama administration decided to maintain the polar bear’s threatened species status and not list it as endangered—highest threat designation possible—under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

According to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) press release, the polar bear is experiencing a serious threat from climate change. Many environmental groups were hoping for an "endangered" species listing because under ESA such a listing requires the government to protect habitat. In the case of polar bears, protection would mean curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, ultimately making ESA a tool for mitigating climate change. 

Recently, Geoff York, WWF polar bear and Arctic expert, spoke on Southern California Public Radio about the reaffirmed designation and the current trouble polar bears are facing.

According to York, polar bears are facing significant challenges compared to 20 years ago.

“Life has changed a lot for Polar Bears in some of the southern most areas where polar bears live. So if you think of places like western Hudson Bay, southern Hudson Bay and southern Beaufort Sea, in particular, those are areas that have seen dramatic changes in timing of sea ice melt in the spring and the formation of sea ice freezing again in the fall time. And we’ve also seen dramatic pull backs of sea ice in the southern Beaufort Sea in particular, so it’s receding further and further from shore now than it did 15-20 years ago. So polar bears in areas like Hudson Bay where they traditionally come on shore for a few months every summer fasting are fasting for longer periods of time.”

This lack of food from fasting is causing a decline in rates of female reproduction and cub survival as well as an overall population decline. The polar bear is expected to migrate to a more favorable climate such as certain areas in Greenland. However, Arctic habitat is quickly dwindling as projections show dramatic sea ice decline over the next 50-100 years.

In November of 2010, USFWS designated nearly 200,000 square miles of polar bear critical habitat. York believes this is a helpful step, but emphasizes that the action doesn’t address the main threat to polar bears—climate change from GHG emissions.

In terms of the polar bear ESA designation, York states that WWF doesn’t “support using ESA as the tool to mitigating greenhouse gases. We think Congress needs to enact new legislation that is specifically meant and built to deal with greenhouse gas emissions and the reduction thereof. We don’t think ESA was ever designed to deal with this threat.”

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