U.S. Government Proposes Listing Bears as "Threatened" Under Endangered Species Act
--Polar Bear B-Roll and Soundbites Available--
WASHINGTON (December 27, 2006) -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) is expected to confirm later today it has formally proposed to list the polar bear as "threatened" with extinction under the Endangered Species Act due to Arctic ice melt from global warming. This follows a multi-year court battle by groups to protect the bear from the impacts of global warming in the Arctic, including the rapid disappearance of the polar bear's sea-ice habitat.
"This is a victory for the polar bear, and all wildlife threatened by global warming," said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity (the Center), one of the plaintiffs in the suit. "This is the beginning of a sea change in the way this country addresses global warming. There is still time to save polar bears but we must reduce global warming pollution immediately."
The Center is joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Greenpeace in this landmark lawsuit. The USF&WS now has one additional year to obtain peer review and public comment on its proposal before issuing a final listing decision for the polar bear.
Once listed, federal agencies will be obligated to ensure that any action they authorize, fund, or carry out will not jeopardize the polar bears continued existence or adversely modify its critical habitat, and the USF&WS will be required to prepare a recovery plan for the polar bear, specifying measures necessary for its protection.
"Global warming is the single biggest threat to polar bears' survival, and this will require the government to address the impacts on the polar bear," said Andrew Wetzler a senior attorney at NRDC. "The time for half-measures and delay is over. We must face the scientific warnings and address this challenge now."
Polar bears live only in the Arctic and are totally dependent on the sea ice for all of their essential needs. The rapid warming of the Arctic and melting of the sea ice poses an overwhelming threat to polar bears, which could become the first mammal to lose 100 percent of their habitat to global warming.
Since the petition to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act was first filed in February 2005, new science portends a dim future for the polar bear. Five of the world's polar bear populations are now classified as "declining" by the Polar Bear Specialist Group, the world's preeminent scientific body for the conservation and management of the species.
The polar bear population in Western Hudson Bay, the most-studied of all populations, has declined from approximately 1,200 bears in 1987, to 1,100 bears in 1995, and then to fewer than 950 bears in 2004 due to ice loss. And in April 2006, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that winter sea ice -- defined as the area with sea ice concentrations of 15 percent or greater -- has shrunk in the past year by over 115,000 square miles, an area about the size of the Arizona, reaching a new record low of 5.60 million square miles (14.5 million square kilometers).
On December 12, scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research said that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer as early as 2040, and in the next 20 years the extent of Arctic sea ice will be reduced by 80 percent. The U.S. Minerals Management Service documented the drowning of at least four polar bears in September 2004, when the sea ice retreated a record 160 miles off the northern coast.
Sea ice loss also drastically reduces the food available to the polar bear, including their main prey, ice seals. In the spring of 2006, scientists located the bodies of several bears that had starved to death. Reduced food availability due to global warming has also resulted in polar bear cannibalism off the north coast of Alaska and Canada.
"The United States has failed to lead the world in tackling global warming. With under five percent of the world's people, we generate more than 20 percent of the global warming pollution," said Kert Davies, Greenpeace research director. "We must start cutting greenhouse gas emissions or the polar bear will be pushed to the brink of extinction within our lifetime."
The United States is the largest emitter of the heat trapping pollution that causes global warming, primarily carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks and power plants. States like California have taken action to cut global warming pollution, but Washington has yet to act.
"Sand in the hourglass is running out for polar bears," said United States Representative Jay Inslee (D-WA). "Congress needs to take bold steps to reduce global warming pollution before time runs out for this and other species."
The conservation organizations Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC, and Greenpeace sued the Bush administration in December 2005, because the government had ignored a petition to protect the polar bear. In response, the USF&WS completed the required first "90-day finding" in February 2006, and found that protection of polar bears "may be warranted," and commenced a full status review of the species. The proposed listing is the result of that scientific study.
Before the proposed rule can be finalized, it will be subject to another round of public comments. Thus far the government has received more than 200,000 comments in support of listing the polar bear, including letters from eminent polar bear experts, climate scientists, and more than 35 members of Congress.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a non-profit conservation organization with over 22,000 members dedicated to the protection of imperiled species and their habitats.
Greenpeace is a non-profit corporation with 2.7 million members worldwide that uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and promote solutions for the future.