Citing Threat of Climate Change, U.S. Designates Nearly 187,000 Square Miles as "Critical Habitat" for Polar Bears

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today (24 November 2010) designated nearly 485,000 sq km (over 187,000 sq mi) as critical habitat for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act.  Noting that "the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of its sea ice habitat caused by human-induced climate change," Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, said that "we will continue to work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this iconic species."

Polar Bear Female With Cubs Along the Beaufort Sea.  Source: Suzanne Miller/USFWS.

Polar Bear Female With Cubs Along the Beaufort Sea.  Source: Suzanne Miller/USFWS.

The Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act on May 15, 2008, but did not designate "critical habitat" for the bears at that time.  See Polar Bear Critical Habitat Questions and Answers (pdf) for answers to common questions about critical habitats.

The failure to designate such habitat was challenged in a lawsuit filed on 16 July 2008 by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace.  A U.S. District Court ordered FWS to submit a final rule by 30 June 2010, a deadline that subsequently was extended to 23 November 2010.

The FWS on 22  October announced a proposed rule designating critical habitat for the polar bears and opened it to public comment for 60 days (see FWS press release, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Proposes Polar Bear Critical Habitat [PDF], 22 October 2010).  In a press release WWF issued at that time (US Designates Polar Bear Critical Habitat, Creating Some Breathing Space for the Species), Geoff York, senior program officer for Polar Bear Conservation at WWF said:

  • “Designation of critical habitat affords important protections to the polar bear, a species imperiled by dramatic changes in its sea ice environment.   As sea ice habitat shrinks, it becomes increasingly important to protect areas that are crucial for the bears’ survival." 
  •  “The changes we are witnessing in the Arctic do not just raise concerns about the fate of iconic species such as polar bear—our own future is at stake.  The planet is changing in dangerous ways and the longer we wait to address the climate crisis the costlier it will be."

York added that "while designation of critical habitat for polar bear is a positive step" it was critical for Congress to pass legislation to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, a step essential to an international agreement.  More than a year has passed since he made that statement, during which time both legislation and an international agreement have remained elusive.

In compliance with the court, FWS yesterday submitted the Final Rule (pdf) to the Federal Register, where it soon will be published.   In its Polar Bear Critical Habitat Questions and Answers (pdf), the FWS explains the threat posed by climate change: 

"At the time the polar bear was listed, a team lead by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and including scientists from other American and Canadian government agencies, academia and the private sector concluded changes in future sea ice conditions, if realized, will result in the loss of approximately 2/3 of the world’s current polar bear population by the mid 21st century. Models used by the USGS team also projected a 42 percent loss of optimal polar bear habitat from the Polar Basin during summer, a vital hunting and breeding period, by mid-century. Because the observed trajectory of Arctic sea ice decline appears to be underestimated by currently available models, this assessment of future polar bear status may be conservative."

In its question & answer document,  the FWS adds this question and answer:

Q: "Studies suggest that polar bear populations will decline regardless of what is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because emissions that have already been released into the atmosphere will result in continued climate warming and additional loss of the polar bear’s sea ice habitat. Can anything be done to save polar bears? "

A: "Inertia in the climate system means human reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will not immediately reduce global temperature or reverse sea ice decline. However, actions beginning in the next few years will help to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change, and hopefully may begin to show some effect in the next 30 to 50 years. Because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has now concluded, with certainty, that the current warming is mostly caused by human contributions of greenhouse gases, this warming can be reversed in the long run by appropriate human actions. Polar bear experts forecast that polar bears are most likely to survive in the Archipelago Ecoregion of Canada through the end of the century; therefore, action starting now could reverse the current trend in time to prevent polar bears from disappearing altogether. The Department of the Interior is working with a diverse group of partners on research, monitoring and mitigation efforts designed to ensure that polar bears can recolonize suitable habitat if conditions improve in the future."

The Center for Biological Diversity today responded to the FWS final rule with a press release that included the following brief statements by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against FWS:

  • Brendan Cummings, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity: “The critical habitat designation clearly identifies the areas that need to be protected if the polar bear is to survive in a rapidly melting Arctic. However, unless the Interior Department starts to take seriously its mandate to actually protect the polar bear’s critical habitat, we will be writing the species’ obituary rather than its recovery plan.
  • Andrew Wetzler, Director of NRDC's Land and Wildlife Program: “Polar bears are slipping away. But we know that there are crucial protections that can keep them around. Today’s designation is a start, especially in warding off ill-considered oil and gas development in America’s most important polar bear habitat.”
  • Melanie Duchin, a Greenpeace campaigner in Anchorage, Alaska:Designating polar bear critical habitat is a good first step toward protecting this species. However, as long as the secretary of the interior maintains that he can do nothing about greenhouse emissions and global warming, protections for the polar bear will ultimately be ineffective.”

Online Resources

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

WWF

 

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