Facing the Prospect of Extinction, Polar Bears Deserve More From Salazar
The future of the mighty polar bear, the world's largest bear and one of the planet's most remarkable and iconic creatures, will be decided by what we do in the coming years. Climate change is pushing it ever closer to extinction as warming temperatures rapidly melt the sea ice it needs to survive. If greenhouse pollution trends continue the species will be driven extinct.
Instead, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has reaffirmed a Bush-era decision that listed the polar bear as "threatened," rather than the more protective "endangered," under the Endangered Species Act. The Dec, 23 decision is all too typical of what we have seen to date from the Obama administration and Secretary Salazar: rather than break with the flawed policies of the Bush administration, they have embraced them. Salazar denied polar bears full "endangered" status for the same reason as the Bush administration: doing so allows the government to exempt greenhouse gas emissions from regulation under the Endangered Species Act.
It may be politically expedient to forestall aid for the polar bear but the reality is that the devastating effects of global warming have already arrived in the Arctic. These incredible bears - which are completely dependent on sea ice for hunting, mating and raising their young - are starving and drowning as warming temperatures rapidly melt their habitat.
Eight of the world's 19 polar bear populations are already in decline, with the more southerly populations hit the hardest and earliest. The Western Hudson Bay population, in Manitoba, Canada, is the most well-studied scientifically, the most visited by tourists, and one of the first to be impacted. I was there in November and saw some of the depressing effects on these magnificent bears first-hand.
Polar bears in western Hudson Bay must come to land each spring when the sea ice melts and fast until the ice freezes again in the fall. The average date of breakup of the sea ice there is now about three weeks earlier than it was 30 years ago, while freeze-up comes several weeks later. The western Hudson Bay polar bear population declined 22 percent between 1987 and 2004, the latest year for which we have final population counts. There's every reason to believe the decline is continuing and accelerating.
Simply put, there is no scientific rationale - or valid legal footing - to deny polar bears the maximum protection available. Unfortunately, Salazar has embraced the Bush administration's illogical position that greenhouse gases are somehow fundamentally different than other pollutants and, when it comes to protecting our nation's most vulnerable wildlife, should be exempted from regulation under the Endangered Species Act. Existing programs under the Act have a long track record for saving imperiled species including by reducing pesticides that harm bald eagles and frogs, and reducing toxic mercury that kills fish and harms other aquatic ecosystems. It makes no sense to exempt greenhouse gases, the greatest threat the world has ever known, from these effective proven programs that are already in use.
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