March 2, 2007

Critics Take Aim at Polar Bear Listing

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- A marked decline in sea ice off Alaska's coast is not enough to take the drastic step of listing polar bears - a species dependent on ice - as threatened, critics said Thursday at the first of three public hearings on the proposal.

Restrictions that could kick in with a listing under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming would be too burdensome, given the unknowns about the future of polar bears, such as the extent of the loss of Arctic sea ice in the next 100 years and whether the animals would face extinction, according to opponents.

"The listing likely will force anyone in America whose business requires the emission of greenhouse gases to go through an additional layer of consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, creating delays and expenses," said Marilyn Crockett, deputy director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, a trade group.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking testimony through April 9 on the proposal to list polar bears as threatened, or likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. The more drastic listing under the law is "endangered," in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in December proposed listing polar bears as threatened. His decision to begin the process was forced by a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity of Joshua Tree, Calif., which said polar bears could become extinct by the end of the century because their sea ice habitat is melting away due to global warming.

In a U.S. Geological Survey report released in November, federal researchers said the Beaufort Sea polar bear population, one of two off the coast of Alaska, has shown significant changes in cub survival.

The report compared data on cubs collected from 1967-89 to data from 1990 to last spring. For polar bears measured during autumn months, the number of surviving cubs born that spring declined from a mean of 61 cubs per 100 females to a mean of 25 cubs per 100 females.

The study also determined that adult males weighed less and had smaller skulls than those captured and measured two decades ago.

Researchers estimated the Beaufort Sea polar bear population at 1,526, down from a previous estimate of 1,800 bears, but did not conclude the population had dropped because the latest study used different counting methods and the two estimates could not be statistically differentiated.

The Arctic has already lost an area of sea ice twice the size of Texas, said Mary Walker with Alaska Conservation Solutions.

"As a result, polar bears are starving to death, drowning and now fewer cubs are surviving," Walker said.

The recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has confirmed that human induced global warming is occurring, said Karla Dutton, director of the Alaska program for Defenders of Wildlife.

"There's no way around it - in order to conserve polar bear habitat in the long term, we must act immediately to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the principal cause of global warming and this Arctic meltdown," she said.

Tina Cunning, special assistant to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the state is reviewing the science on the proposed listing. She said some information may have been omitted.

She said the proposed listing is based on the presumption that sea ice is the most important factor for survival of polar bears, and that sea ice will be significantly diminished.

"Polar bears are adaptable to use land for hunting and to den, and data from several areas indicate that bears are already adapting," she said.

Crockett said the listing would hurt investment in Alaska even though it's not clear how additional restrictions would help polar bears.

She said this is scientific consensus regarding the occurrence of global climate change but no consensus on the reliability of the models used to project future climate.

"The range of uncertainty regarding the timing, extent and location of future climate impacts is enormous," Crockett said.

If the agency decides a listing is warranted, it would be the first to do so for a species that is healthy in numbers and distribution, she said.

Carl Portman, deputy director of the Resource Development Council, said polar bears are abundant, their population is healthy, and they're well managed and protected by international and domestic agreements.

A listing decision should be made on what's known, not on the speculative nature of the climate models and carbon emission scenarios, he said.

"It is virtually impossible to say with any certainty that polar bears are likely to become extinct in the foreseeable future," he said.

Two more public hearings are scheduled, including one Monday in Washington, D.C., and one Wednesday in Barrow, Alaska, America's northernmost community. A decision on listing polar bears is due next January.