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Mike Di Paola

March 12 (Bloomberg) — Polar bears are starving near the Arctic Circle. The unfolding tragedy may help highlight one of the planet’s gravest threats, global climate change.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has proposed to list the polar bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Polar bears hunt their prey from sea ice, which has been declining steadily as the climate warms. Since 1978, the late summer Arctic sea ice area has been shrinking by 7 percent per decade, while perennial sea ice has dropped by 9.8 percent in that time, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s satellite measurements.

With ice breaking up sooner each spring and freezing over later each autumn, bears have less space and time in which to hunt and they must swim farther to find food. In the western Hudson Bay in Canada, the southernmost range of polar bears, their numbers have dropped by 22 percent since the early 1980s.

“The declining survival rate seems to be directly related to the earlier sea-ice breakup that they’re seeing in that part of the world,” says Steve Amstrup, Polar Bear Project Leader for the Alaska Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea off Alaska are showing signs of malnutrition: smaller bodies in adult males and lower survival rates of cubs. Some animals are stranded on land, far from their food source, while others drown in the attempt to cross long stretches of open sea. There have even been instances of bear cannibalism in recent years, a phenomenon never before observed.

Lawsuits

While the U.S. government has taken the first step to protect the bears, it didn’t exactly rush to their defense. Two years ago, the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, filed a petition with the U.S. Interior Department under the Endangered Species Act. When the agency was sluggish to respond, the center teamed up with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Greenpeace to sue. The parties reached a settlement in July 2006, which gave the government until Dec. 27 to act on the petition. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne’s proposal, which honors the terms of the settlement, was published in the Federal Register on Jan. 9.

The Center for Biological Diversity hopes to spur action on climate change by identifying animal species already falling victim to global warming. The group first tried to get Kittlitz’s murrelet, a small diving seabird of coastal Alaska, listed. Those efforts fell flat, says the center’s climate director, Kassie Siegel. “We learned as we went along that the polar bear is the perfect species because it’s iconic and people care.”

Recovery Plan

If the bear is listed, federal agencies must ensure that any action they authorize will not further jeopardize the animal or its habitat. Better yet, the Fish and Wildlife Service would be required to prepare a detailed recovery plan.

Polar bears roam the circumpolar Arctic, traipsing through Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. The worldwide population is estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000, up from around 10,000 in the 1960s, when unregulated hunting threatened to wipe out the great carnivore.

Opposition to the proposal was lining up even before Kempthorne’s announcement. In a letter to Kempthorne, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin wrote that listing polar bears could damage her state’s oil-driven economy, “without any benefit to polar bear numbers or their habitat.”

Actually, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already determined that oil and gas development poses no threat to polar bears. That said, it will be interesting to see whether the agency connects obvious dots between increasing CO2 emissions and decreasing sea ice.

Public Comment

In the coming months, the defense council and others will be submitting technical comments on the federal proposal — including polar bear biology, toxic contamination of the animals’ habitat and, of course, the impact of global warming. Anyone can submit comments by e-mailing the Fish and Wildlife Service at Polar_Bear_Finding@fws.gov .

The Endangered Species Act is one of the more successful environmental regulatory mechanisms. It would be quite a testament to its efficacy if it helped save the polar bear and a minor miracle if it prodded the U.S. government to act on climate change.

(Mike Di Paola writes about preservation and the environment for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer responsible for this story: Mike Di Paola at mdipaola@nyc.rr.com .

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