Melting Ice is Fast Eroding Animals' Habitat, Hunting Grounds

WASHINGTON (February 8, 2006) -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that it is opening the formal process to list polar bears as officially "threatened" due to the unprecedented meltdown of their sea-ice habitat caused by global warming. The finding comes in response to a December lawsuit filed under the federal Endangered Species Act by three conservation groups.

"Federal officials have now acknowledged that global warming is transforming the Arctic, and threatening polar bears with extinction," said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity. "It's not too late for polar bears if we act immediately to start cutting global warming emissions."

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Greenpeace filed the action against Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to respond to the groups' petition to list polar bears under the law. A federal judge has scheduled a hearing in that case on March 17.

Just yesterday, the government's National Climatic Data Center announced that January temperatures in the United States were the warmest on record, beating the average figure by a full 8.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Two weeks ago, scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies confirmed that worldwide, 2005 was the hottest year ever recorded.

Polar bears live only in the Arctic and are totally dependent on the sea ice for all of their essential needs, including hunting their prey of ice seals. An enormous body of scientific evidence shows that the Arctic ice is vanishing much faster than previously expected. The thick multiyear ice has been shrinking as much as 10 percent per decade, and some climate models predict that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer as early as 2040.

"These animals need protection now," said Andrew Wetzler of NRDC. "Everything in their lives depends on the ice sheet, and that ice sheet is disappearing at an unprecedented rate. If current pollution levels continue we simply will not recognize the Arctic anymore."

As temperatures rise, researchers say that Arctic sea ice is forming later, breaking up earlier, and the area covered by it is shrinking. Dramatic changes have occurred in Alaska, where scientists with 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 state's northern coast. The researchers said that more polar bears likely drowned than were spotted, and predict increases in such deaths as global warming advances.

In Western Hudson Bay in Canada, polar bears are forced onto land for a period of fasting when the sea ice melts in the spring, and cannot hunt again until the ice freezes up again in the fall. Because of global warming, the season for bears to hunt on the ice has already become too short for the bears to build up sufficient fat stores for optimum health and reproduction. As a result, this population of polar bears has declined approximately 14 percent in 10 years, from 1,100 in 1995 to fewer than 950 in 2004.

Listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act -- America's safety net for plants and animals on the brink of extinction -- will provide broad protection to polar bears, including a requirement that U.S. federal agencies ensure that any action carried out, authorized or funded by the U.S. government will not "jeopardize the continued existence" of polar bears, or adversely modify their critical habitat.

"Listing under the Endangered Species Act will provide important protections for the bears, including a requirement that federal agencies responsible for large greenhouse gas emissions consider their impacts on polar bears and their Arctic habitat," said Kert Davies of Greenpeace. "The bears are just the beginning of a much bigger problem. By protecting them now, we will be protecting ourselves in the future."

The United States is the world's largest emitter of the heat-trapping pollution that causes global warming, primarily carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks, power plants, and other sources.

Today's positive finding on the petition to list polar bears under the Endangered Species Act begins a comment period and full "status review" of the species, following which the federal government will decide whether to propose listing the polar bear as a threatened species.

More information regarding polar bears, global warming, and United States climate policy is available online at biologicaldiversity.org, greenpeaceusa.org and nrdc.org.

Related NRDC Pages

Wildlife on the Brink: Polar Bear

Global Warming Puts the Arctic on Thin Ice