A Big Win for Polar Bears?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Evert-Jan Daniels / AFP / Getty

A new government proposal would designate the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

There is a limit to the pugnacity of any Administration. Richard Nixon reached it in Cambodia; John F. Kennedy reached it at the Bay of Pigs. Until now, President George W. Bush may never have encountered an eye he wasn't willing to at least consider poking. But even for him, the polar bear may have finally proven to be a fight too far.

In a move that is delighting environmentalists, the Department of Interior is announcing a new proposal to designate the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The move settles a lawsuit brought by three environmental groups — the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity — and while the resolution itself was not a stunner, the implications of it are: The government must effectively own up to global warming as the likely cause of the problem. For a White House that has long questioned whether human-influenced climate change exists at all, this is a shift not just in policy, but in the very foundations of its environmental orthodoxy.

It's no secret that polar bears are in very deep trouble, and have been for a while. There are only between 20,000 and 25,000 of them left in the world, divided among 19 populations in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Russia and elsewhere. Perhaps the best studied of the groups is the Western Hudson Bay population, which scientists have been monitoring since the 1960s. For decades, membership of the group remained relatively stable, at about 1,200 adults and cubs. Between 1987 and 1994, however — precisely the years in which the rise in global temperatures have become the most evident — the number plummeted to 935, or a die-off of 22%. And that is only one of the five overall polar bear populations listed as declining by the multinational World Conservation Union.

It's not just the fact that the bears are dying that's so alarming, but the way they're dying — and all of it points to a warmer world. Spring ice that the bears rely on as fishing platforms has been breaking up about three weeks earlier than it used to. Though polar bears don't hibernate, they do retreat to dens in the winter to escape bad weather. When they emerge, they badly need to replenish their fat supplies, and slashing three weeks off the dining schedule does not help. Scientists who track bear populations report that fewer cubs are surviving into adulthood — never mind the ones that aren't getting born at all — and those adults that are observed are often thinner than they used to be. Some bears have been resorting to cannibalism to survive and others are simply turning up drowned, trapped in open water as they try to paddle to ice floes that have melted away. In one month in 2005, more than 50 bears were observed swimming in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea.

Listing the bears as threatened could help a lot. The Endangered Species Act is a powerful one, throwing a big blanket of protection around any animal that comes under its care. Strict limits are put on damage that can be done to the species' habitat and the harm that individuals, including hunters, can do to any member of the protected group. Most powerful is the consultation clause, a provision of the law that requires the federal government to determine the impact of any actions it takes that might harm a protected species and modify its behavior accordingly.

"Say you want to build a coal-fired power plant in the Midwest," says Andrew Wetzler, senior attorney for the NRDC. "That requires a slew of federal permits and the polar bear would have to be considered." What's more, the clause requires the government to use the "best available science" in making these determinations, and at this point, the only available — or at least only responsible — science lays the polar bear problem squarely at the feet of global warming.

All of this ought to be very good news for the bears. What puzzles — and worries — some enviros is why the Administration folded its cards so easily on this one. For a White House that was willing to battle all the way to the Supreme Court to keep Congressional and other eyes off the proceedings of Vice President Cheney's energy task force, walking away from a fight with three private advocacy groups seemed uncharacteristically timid, particularly since the Administration could just run out the clock until January 2009.

One possibility that worries skeptics is that the Interior move may turn out to be much less than it seems. A proposed listing is only the first step in protecting a species. The government then has a year to study the question and could ultimately determine that protection is not warranted. This would no doubt lead to more court battles that could indeed run past the expiration date of the Administration itself. What's more, even if the bear is listed, the government is required only to refrain from taking actions that harm the species further. It is not required to remedy existing ones that led to the problem — like tolerating dirty cars with poor mileage ratings. "There has to be some kind of federal nexus to the action that hurts the species," says Wetzler.

But polar bear have something powerful on their side, and that's the simple fact that people love them. Like pandas, tigers and other so-called charismatic mega-fauna, polar bears are one of those iconic animals that almost everyone agrees the world would be far poorer without. That's a fight even the most stubborn White House might not want to take on. "There's a legal battle and a public relations battle," says Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the Center for Biodiversity. "I don't think the Administration wanted to lose both of them." The fear of that twin loss for the White House may turn out to mean a big win for the bear.