August 29, 2008

Canada Steps Up Polar Bear Protection Studies

Environmentalists have criticized Canada for not adequately protecting polar bears from the effects of climate change. 

Now the Canadian government said on Thursday it would take more time to study its next step.

Detailed findings of an April review classified the bear population as a "special concern," but not endangered or threatened with extinction, a scientific panel said.

Environment Minister John Baird said the government has created a national round table to consult with a variety of groups, including residents of the Arctic, on how best to protect the bears.

Baird said protecting the polar bears is something we are committed to, but they're going to base it on science and with input and collaboration with Inuit and northern people.

Two-thirds of the world's 25,000 polar bears live in Canada.

Polar bears are the symbol of the country's vast northern region, with the metal of Northwest Territories' license plates even stamped in its silhouette.

In May, the United States said it was listing polar bears as a threatened species. Canada was cooperating with U.S. officials on studying how best to protect the animals, Baird said.

Canada falls short by not matching the U.S. declaration, which was prompted by fears that global warming was destroying the ice needed by the bears to survive, according to some green groups.

But Canada's Arctic Inuit people say the bear population is not in as much trouble as some fear, with the most serious problems more localized in nature, and they complain further restrictions on hunting will hurt their communities.

Designating the polar bears as threatened would enforce prohibitions like bans on hunting and destruction of habitat.

Two thirds of the world's polar bears could be gone by mid-century if predictions of melting sea ice in the Arctic hold true, according to a U.S. Geological Survey last September.