CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY
| FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 16, 2004
CONSERVATION GROUP PETITIONS UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT TO LIST THE POLAR BEAR AS A THREATENED SPECIES UNDER THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT
POLAR BEARS MAY BECOME EXTINCT BY THE END OF THIS CENTURY DUE TO GLOBAL WARMING
Today the Center for Biological Diversity, a non profit conservation organization, filed a formal petition requesting that the polar bear species (Ursus maritimus) worldwide be added to the list of threatened species under the United States Endangered Species Act. Polar bears may become extinct by the end of this century because their sea-ice habitat is literally melting away due to global warming.
In response to the Petition, Senator Joseph Lieberman, co-sponsor of the Climate Stewardship Act, stated “The potential listing of the polar bear as an endangered species because of the effects of global warming should set off alarm bells around the world. Global warming is removing the bears’ habitat and wreaks havoc in the arctic climates where they live and grow. To spoil the earth for generations to come, and for the creatures that inhabit it, when we knew what we were doing and could have stopped it, would be a moral failing of enormous – and might I add – biblical proportions.”
Polar bears, the largest of all bear species worldwide, live only in the Arctic and are found only in areas where sea ice occurs for a significant portion of the year. There are 20 recognized populations, or stocks, of polar bears that occur within the jurisdiction of five countries, the United States (Alaska), Canada, Norway, Denmark (Greenland) and Russia. Polar bears use sea ice for virtually all of their essential behaviors, including feeding, mating, and maternity denning. Polar bears are classified as marine mammals and feed primarily upon ringed seals (Phoca hispida), also an ice-dependent species.
Arctic sea ice is declining overall due to warming temperatures. Seasonal sea ice is also breaking up earlier each spring, and forming later in the autumn. In Western Hudson Bay in Canada, at the southern edge of the polar bear’s range, the sea-ice season has become approximately 2 ½ weeks shorter over the past several decades, resulting in a shorter period of time for polar bears to hunt ringed seals on the sea ice. Once the ice melts in Western Hudson Bay in springtime, polar bears must fast for up to eight months on land until the sea ice returns. Decreases in polar bear body condition and decreases in survival of polar bear cubs from global warming have already been observed and attributed to global warming in Western Hudson Bay. Similar impacts and population declines can be expected in polar bear populations worldwide as global warming accelerates.
That global warming is occurring and accelerating due to human production of greenhouse gases, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels for energy, is no longer subject to any credible debate. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (“ACIA”) projects that even under conservative estimates of future greenhouse gas emissions, Arctic winter temperatures may rise by up to 18° Farenheit (10° C) over the next 100 years. Summer sea ice will likely disappear entirely by the end of this century.
Habitat loss is the primary cause of species extinction worldwide – and the polar bear’s sea-ice habitat is literally melting away. The 154 page Petition filed today cites global warming as the primary threat to polar bears, in addition to oil and gas development in the Arctic, high levels of contaminants such as PCBs in polar bear tissues, and overhunting of some populations in Canada, Greenland, and Russia.
Listing under the United States Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) will provide broad protection to polar bears, including a requirement that United States federal agencies ensure that any action carried out, authorized, or funded by the United States government will not “jeopardize the continued existence” of polar bears, or adversely modify their critical habitat. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with protection of species under the ESA, must respond to the Petition within 90 days.
The United States currently produces fully 24% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and the U.S. Government Accounting Office projects that United States greenhouse gas emissions will grow by 43.5% through the year 2025. The Bush Administration has renounced the Kyoto Protocol, designed to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, and has adopted a “climate plan” that will allow United States emissions to continue to grow rapidly.
“The United States must quickly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to a small fraction of current levels or polar bears will become extinct,” said Kassie Siegel, lead author of today’s Petition. “Greenhouse gas emissions can be drastically cut with sound policy changes that will not decrease quality of life, such as by increasing fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. But we must act now.”