We Shouldn't Turn Our Backs on Polar Bears

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The future for polar bears looks bleak.  Their habitat is literally melting away as Arctic temperatures continue to rise from global warming, leading polar bear scientists to predict a loss of more than two-thirds of all polar bears within the next 40 years, leaving less than 9,000 animals to ride out the second half of this century in the Canadian Arctic archipelago.  And what a second half of the century it will be – it’s the time period in which polar bears could disappear altogether if we don’t do more to save the species, which is also plagued by toxic chemicals, threatened by oil development, and killed in Canada at unsustainable levels to supply international demand for polar bear skins and other collectables (did I mention that the last place of respite for polar bears will be in Canada?  Talk about finding yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place!).

It’s enough bad news to lead some people to think we might as well throw in the towel on the species now.  I hope that’s not what’s behind the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s indecision on whether to propose a ban on the global trafficking of polar bear parts at the next meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  While the Obama Administration led the charge at the last CITES meeting for polar bears, it’s “undecided” as to whether it will propose banning the international commercial trade in polar bear skins, skulls, teeth, and claws at the next CITES meeting in early 2013.  While agreeing that polar bears meet the technical criteria for greater protections from international trade, the Obama Administration hasn’t decided whether it will put up a fight for polar bears in the international arena.

In a time when Congress is unwilling to fully fund species protection and conservation efforts, it’s an alluring idea to start categorizing some species as “lost causes,” freeing up resources for “easier to help” species.  But ultimately, that kind of thinking has no end.  With scientists predicting dramatic increases in the risk of extinctions (20-30 percent of species) from climate change, it won’t be long before most of the threatened and endangered species that the Fish and Wildlife Service manages will be “lost causes.”  With that kind of thinking, the Fish and Wildlife Service might as well close shop now.

But that’s not what Congress had in mind when it drafted the Endangered Species Act or when the United States ratified the CITES treaty; we don’t turn our backs on the species that need our help the most.  That’s why the wildlife conservation community has been pushing the Obama Administration to do the right thing – propose a ban on the international trade in polar bear parts at the next CITES meeting.  NRDC and other organizations sent that message to the administration yesterday in a letter commenting on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s indecision on polar bears.

While the world struggles to come to grips with global warming and how to stop it, we must do everything we can to strengthen polar bear populations, giving them the best chance to survive while we stabilize the global climate.  It’s the least we can do.  You can do your part by taking action here.