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."