A step forward for polar bears but a cloud on the horizon for, well, everything

Today’s wildlife news is a mix of the encouraging and the daunting. 

One the one hand, polar bear conservation took a modest but important step forward yesterday, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to designate “critical habitat” for the polar bear and to issue guidelines on non-lethal steps people can take to deter problem bears.  The agreement settles part of NRDC’s, the Center for Biological Diversity’s, and Greenpeace’s ongoing lawsuit over polar bear protections.  The commitment to designate critical habitat is particularly important.  Critical habitat is habitat that an endangered species needs in order to recover.  Once designated, it is afforded special protections from federal agency action under the Endangered Species Act.

On the other hand, there was a stark reminder yesterday from the the World Conservation Congress, which is taking place in Barcelona, about the true magnitude of the challenges that all mammals (including polar bears) now face.  After conducting a five years survey of 1,700 researchers in 130 countries, scientists have concluded that 25% of the worlds 5,487 mammals species face extinction.  And this may well be a conservative assessment.  As reported by the Los Angeles Times today:

The prospects for these animals may be worse than even the global numbers suggest, said Jan Schipper of Conservation International, who was the lead author of the Science paper. The problem is what he called a surprising lack of information about 836 mammal species.

"If you don't know where they are or how many there are, then it's hard to determine if they have viable populations or [are] threatened with extinction," Schipper said. Given this uncertainty, as many as 36% of land mammal species and 61% of whale, seal and other marine mammal species could be threatened with extinction.