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Pro: Polar bears must be added to endangered species list

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Vicky Meretsky
February 16, 2008
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Do polar bears belong on the endangered species list?

These days the news is full of beautiful—and wrenching—images of polar bears, often swimming in unending open water, or standing on tiny ice floes. Although polar bears swim readily, ice is the habitat to which they are best suited—where they hunt the seals that are their prey. And the ice is shrinking. Even those only vaguely familiar with polar bears know they are heading into troubled times.


Scientists now know enough about climate change to model future sea ice conditions. Model results suggest the Arctic will be completely ice-free in summer well before the end of the century. As a result, polar bear populations are expected to decline by two-thirds by 2050.


These anticipated declines have led to a proposal to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.


A decision was due in January but has been delayed. To be listed as “threatened,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must find that polar bears are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. “Endangered” implies a species is threatened with extinction in the foreseeable future.


Listing the polar bear as endangered is warranted and has value for conservation both as a symbol of the urgent need for action on climate change issues and as a means of providing potential protection for the species.


Nevertheless, considerable noise and heat accompanied the proposal for listing. Shipping and mining interests and the agencies that support them are concerned their activities will be blocked if the Endangered Species Act comes into play.


Currently, U.S. citizens are the major clients for Canadian polar bear hunts and bring trophies home with little difficulty. Both the hunters and their guides—often indigenous people—are concerned about the impacts of listing. In addition, fears have been raised that listing the polar bear is a way to force draconian conservation measures on the United States.


Those opposing listing polar bears point out that they are already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, that their populations have increased in the past few decades and that solid management programs are in place for many populations around the Arctic.


In response to arguments against listing, conservation groups point out that Endangered Species Act provisions are stronger than those protecting marine mammals, that “threatened” status could still permit hunting, and that management programs, however good they might be, are unlikely to protect the bear against the coming changes to its environment.


As for sending out the climate-change police, the Endangered Species Act has no provisions for such actions. Holly Doremus, an environmental law expert with a gift for clear language, outlined the limitations of the act in this regard in a January commentary on the Slate Web site.


One of the more pragmatic reasons put forward for not listing the polar bear has been that listing cannot eliminate or even reduce the major threat to the polar bears—climate change.


Yes, it’s true that the Endangered Species Act offers no instant remedy. But listing a species does send a clear signal. It requires government agencies to arrange their activities and activities they permit so as to protect listed species. Listing can also increase research and monitoring activity to improve management.


The threat to polar bears is well within the range of danger at which other species have been listed and listing as “threatened’ might offer protection in the future.


Presently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicates that oil exploration and extraction, hunting, and shipping are not major threats to the species. But as warming continues, these and other activities might become more damaging to the bears or their habitat. We should offer what safety we can through the law intended for that purpose.


Vicky Meretsky is an associate professor in the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs (www.spea.indiana.edu). Readers can write to her at SPEA, 1315 E. Tenth St., Bloomington, Ind. 47405.

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