Endangered Species Act:



USFWS/Scott Schliebe
The polar bear is at risk of extinction as global warming melts away its Arctic sea-ice habitat. Now it's getting a second chance: polar bears may get protection under the Endangered Species Act. But the decision is not final.

Polar Bear Headed for Endangered Species Act Protection:
May Become Extinct Due to Global Warming

On February 16, 2005 — the same day the Kyoto Protocol entered into force without the participation of the United States — the Center for Biological Diversity filed a scientific petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Polar bears are at risk of extinction because global warming is causing catastrophic environmental change in the Arctic, including the rapid melting of sea ice. Because the bears are deeply dependent on the sea ice for their survival, they stand to become the first mammals in the world to lose 100 percent of their habitat to global warming.

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Message on the Wind ©Thomas D. Mangelsen/Imagesofnaturestock.com. Polar bears must wait for the sea ice to re-freeze each fall so they can resume hunting seals. If current levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue, Arctic sea ice will melt and not return.

On December 15, 2005, the Center and our partners NRDC and Greenpeace sued the Bush administration for ignoring our petition. In response, on February 9, 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a positive 90-day petition finding for polar bears, opened a 60-day comment period, and initiated a status review of the species. Finally, on December 27, 2006, the administration announced a proposed rule to list the polar bear as threatened. Comments will be accepted on the proposal until April 9, 2007, and the administration must make a final listing determination by January 9, 2008.

Because all listing decisions under the Endangered Species Act must be made on the basis of the best available science, the current rulemaking for polar bears would have to concede the severity of the global warming crisis, acknowledging the fact that a rapid, dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to prevent the extinction of the species.

Protection under the Endangered Species Act will provide concrete help to polar bears and could revolutionize American climate policy. Since U.S. resistance to curbing greenhouse gases has allowed other countries to shirk their responsibilities as well, major changes in American policy are likely to have a powerful domino effect, catalyzing change in climate policy worldwide. The polar bear’s protected status will require a new level of environmental review before oil and gas development continue in polar bear habitat in the American Arctic. Even more critically, because it is illegal to harm threatened species or jeopardize their survival, the polar bear listing could mean that all U.S. industries emitting large quantities of greenhouse gases — and requiring a federal permit to do so — will come under the purview of the Endangered Species Act. From polluting power plants in the Midwest to auto manufacturers, a vast array of industries may have to clean up their acts to give the polar bear a chance to survive.

Polar Bears in Their World

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus), also known as the great white bear, ice bear, and nanook, is the largest of the world’s bear species. Polar bears live only in the Arctic and are completely dependent upon the sea ice for survival; they’re the Arctic’s top predator and specialize in hunting ringed seals. (More on polar bears’ natural history.)

Tragically, this mighty hunter now faces extinction because its sea-ice habitat is literally melting away due to global warming. Polar bears use sea ice for virtually all of their essential behaviors, including feeding, mating, travel, and maternity denning. They cannot survive the loss of sea-ice habitat that will occur if current levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue. Scientists have already recorded thinner bears, lower female reproductive rates, and reduced juvenile survival in the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population in Canada, which is at the southern edge of the species’ range and the first to suffer impacts from global warming.

Global Warming and the Arctic

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 credible scientific dispute. Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was quoted in January 2005 in a British newspaper stating that the world has "already reached the level of dangerous concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere" and that we “are risking the ability of the human race to survive."


Sea ice extent on Sept. 21, 1979 and Sept. 14, 2007. Images courtesy NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Temperatures are rising far more rapidly in the Arctic than in the rest of the world. As a result, sea ice is rapidly melting away. Even under relatively optimistic future emissions scenarios, some climate models predict that summer sea ice will disappear completely by the end of this century. Some scientists believe the ice could melt completely by 2040.

It is not too late to prevent the disappearance of polar bears. The United States produces fully 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Rational energy, transportation, and development policies would drastically curb emissions, improve quality of life, and give polar bears back their future. The Center is working for these policies through law and science at the local, state, and federal levels. Click the links below to read more and find out how you can help.

How to Reduce Your Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Climate Policy and the Kyoto Protocol

Global Warming and the Arctic

Mother's Pride ©Thomas D. Mangelsen/Imagesofnaturestock.com. Female polar bears are exemplary mothers, and care for their young for over two years.

Special thanks to Thomas D. Mangelsen for the generous donation of the use of his award-winning polar bear images. For more information on Thomas D. Mangelsen fine art photography, please visit http://www.imagesofnaturewebstore.com

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