U.S. Fish & Wildlife Finds the Polar Bear is a Threatened Species

polar bearUpdate: The polar bear is now listed as a threatened species. For more on this and what this listing could mean for the polar bear, read Animal Law Coalition’s earlier reports below.

Original report: On January 9, 2007 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, 15 USC 1531 et seq.; 72 FR 1064.

They should be listed as an endangered and not just threatened species.

At any rate, USFWS took public comments until April 9, 2007 on this proposal. USFWS has now re-opened for two weeks only or until October 5, 2007 for additional public comments.

Click here to sign a petition and offer additional comments in support of the listing of polar bears as a threatened species.

Throughout the Arctic, polar bears are known by a variety of common names, including nanook, nanuq, ice bear, sea bear, isbjorn, white bears, and eisbaer.

The total number of polar bears worldwide is estimated to be 20,000-25,000. There are 19 populations of polar bears, 13 of which are in Canada. They are otherwise found in the East Siberian, Laptev, and Kara Seas of Russia; Fram Strait, Greenland Sea, and Barents Sea of northern Europe (Norway, Greenland, and Denmark); Baffin Bay, which separates Canada and Greenland, through most of the Canadian Arctic archipelago and the Canadian Beaufort Sea; and in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas located west and north of Alaska.

For the most part, polar bears remain on the sea ice year-round or spend only short periods on land.

Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act, 16 USC §1533 and regulations at 50 CFR part 424, set forth procedures for adding species to the federal List of Endangered and Threatened Species. Under section 4(a) of the Act, a species may be listed on the basis of any of five factors, as follows: (A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; (B) over utilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or (E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence. 16 USC §1533(a).

The term "threatened species" means "any species that is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range." 16 USCS § 1532 (20). The term "endangered species" means any species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The Act does not define the term "foreseeable future." 16 USCS § 1532 (6)

USFWS has found all 19 populations of polar bear may be threatened within the meaning of the Endangered Species Act. The threat is from global warming. There is also danger to polar bears from increasing oil and gas exploration and production.

USFWS notes, "Arctic regions are being disproportionately affected by higher levels of warming…. Observations of Arctic changes.. includ[e] diminishing sea ice, shrinking glaciers, thawing permafrost, and Arctic greening".

"The National Snow and Ice Data Center….[,] affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Geophysical Data Center[,] …report[s] that the amount of sea ice in 2006 was the second lowest on record (since satellites began recording sea ice extent measurements via passive microwave imagery in 1978), and the pace of melting [is] accelerating".

"The winter maximum sea ice extent in 2005 and 2006 were both about 6 percent lower than average values, indicating significant decline in the winter sea ice cover. In both cases, the observed surface temperatures were also significantly warmer and the onset of freeze-up was later than normal. In both years, onset of melt also happened early ….A continued decline would mean …a warmer ocean in the peripheral seas of the Arctic Ocean. This in turn may result in a further decline in winter ice cover".

"Average air temperatures across most of the Arctic Ocean from January to August 2006 were about 2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit ([degrees] F) warmer than the long-term average across the region during the preceding 50 years, indicating that ice melt is accelerating".

"Results of a new study by a team of scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and two universities…suggest that abrupt reductions in the extent of summer ice are likely to occur over the next few decades, and that near ice-free September conditions may be reached as early as 2040".

"[T]he ice season is decreasing…..[T]he length of the melt season is increasing at a rate of approximately 13.1 days per decade".

"A number of climate models have been developed that project future conditions in the Arctic, as well as globally…. All models predict continued Arctic warming and continued decreases in the Arctic sea ice cover in the 21st century … due to increasing global temperatures".

"Further, due to increased warming in the Arctic region, accepted models project almost no sea ice cover during summer in the Arctic Ocean by the end of the 21st century …More recently, the NSIDC cautioned that the Arctic will be ice-free by 2060 if current warming trends continue".

"Predicted Arctic atmospheric and oceanographic changes for time periods through the year 2080 include increased air temperatures, increased precipitation and run-off, and reduced sea ice extent and duration".

In view of thinning, melting ice, warming temperatures and increasing rain, the polar bears are threatened as a species. They face the loss of habitat, denning and prey. Global warming greatly damages their health including the ability to reproduce, and puts them at risk, for example, of drowning.

Federal protection for U.S. polar bears could mean designation of critical habitat. Section 7(a)(2) of the Endangered Species Act requires "federal agencies to ensure that activities they authorize, fund, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the species or destroy or adversely modify its critical habitat." 16 USCS § 1532(5)

The listing of the polar bear as a threatened species would subsequently lead to regulations designed to conserve the bears and could include the development of a recovery plan. 16 USCS § 1533

Federal protections could mean, with exceptions, prohibitions on the take and import or export or other commercial activity involving polar bears. The Act defines "take’ to mean "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or to attempt to engage in any such conduct." 16 USCS §§1532(10),(19);1538

Submit written comments to the Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Marine Mammals Management Office, 1011 East Tudor Road, Anchorage, Alaska 99503.

Individual respondents may request that we withhold their names and/or home addresses, etc., but if you wish us to consider withholding this information, you must state this prominently at the beginning of your comments. In addition, you must present rationale for withholding this information. This rationale must demonstrate that disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy. Unsupported assertions will not meet this burden. In the absence of exceptional, documentable circumstances, this information will be released. We will always make submissions from organizations or businesses, and from individuals identifying themselves as representatives of or officials of organizations or businesses, available for public inspection in their entirety. Comments and materials received will be available for public inspection, by appointment, during normal business hours at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office

Email comments directly to USFWS at: Polar-Bear-Finding@fws.gov or to the Federal eRulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov. If you submit comments by e-mail, please submit them in ASCII file format and avoid the use of special characters and encryption. Please include "Attn: Polar Bear Finding" and your name and return address in your e-mail message. Please note that the e-mail address will be closed at the termination of the public comment period.

USFWS seeks, in particular, comments concerning:

(1) Information on taxonomy, distribution, habitat selection (especially denning habitat), food habits, population density and trends, habitat trends, and effects of management on polar bears;

(2) Information on the effects of sea ice change on the distribution and abundance of polar bears and their principal prey over the short and long term;

(3) Information on the effects of other potential listing factors, including oil and gas development, contaminants, ecotourism, hunting, poaching, on the distribution and abundance of polar bears and their principal prey over the short and long term;

(4) Information on regulatory mechanisms and management programs for polar bear conservation, including mitigation measures related to oil and gas exploration and development, hunting conservation programs, anti-poaching programs, and any other private, tribal, or governmental conservation programs which benefit polar bears;

(5) The specific physical and biological features to consider, and specific areas that may meet the definition of critical habitat and that should or should not be considered for a proposed critical habitat designation as provided by section 4 of the Act;

(6) Information relevant to whether any populations of the species may qualify as distinct population segments; and

(7) The data and studies referred to within the proposal.