Protection for Polar Bears Postponed, Big Oil to Blame?

The Polar Bear is skating on thin ice
On 9 January, the US Fish and Wildlife service was to announce a decision on a proposal made one year ago to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The prime threat to the biggest land carnivore is from melting sea ice. In a press release on January 7, the FWS said the final announcement will be one more month in coming. The World Wildlife Fund has called the delay 'disappointing'.

The USFWS has been examining material gathered by the Geological Survey put together in a September 2007 report. They had asked for information on sea ice melt-offs and the consequences for polar bears, in January 2007. The data has been hard to get, for many reasons. The future patterns of climate are hard to predict, especially in the polar regions. Also, information on polar bear populations is somewhat sketchy. But independent agencies have said there is more than sufficient information for this particular decision to be made.

The World Conservation Union's Red List classified polar bears as 'vulnerable' in May 2006. The listing indicates a high risk of extinction in the wild. Recent studies have found that the threats to polar bears are many, but melting sea ice overrode all other factors. The prediction is that floating polar ice will disappear by mid century, leaving the bear without food and habitat. It is believed that Two-thirds of the population could disappear by 2050.

Meanwhile, the bears are facing more immediate dangers. The Department of Interior (US) has announced that 29.7 million acres of the pristine Chuckhi sea, which lies north of the Bering Straits, will be opened to oil and gas exploration. The area is believed to support a tenth of the world's polar bears. The irony is that is if the bear get listed as endangered, the FWS will begin examining crucial habitats for protection, which could include the same Chukchi region.

"The polar bear's existence is increasingly threatened by the impact of climate change-induced loss of sea ice," said Margaret Williams, managing director of WWF's Kamchatka and Bering Sea Program. "The chances for the continued survival of this icon of the Arctic will be greatly diminished if its remaining critical habitat is turned into a vast oil and gas field." -- WWF
Potential oil spills from oil and natural gas extractions are the biggest concerns in the opening up of this region.

Some environmental groups have not missed the proximity of these two developments - they now say the oil lease sale is probably the reason for the delay. The sale of the Chukchi land is slated for February 6, but no date has been set to decide the fate of the polar bear.

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  • Posted on Jan. 10, 2008. Listed in:

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