After a protracted two-year delay, the US government recently listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A few weeks ago, a federal judge had issued something of an ultimatum to the government asking them to make a final decision by 15 May 2008. Studies have estimated that with shrinking ice, bear populations may drop by two-thirds in the next 40 years. Listing the bears as threatened meant that the US government would have to acknowledge where the biggest threat came from: melting polar ice sheets. The bears use the ice as a platform from which to hunt; they also need it to travel between Arctic coasts to find mates and den.
Less ice means less food and more energy spent swimming between floes and land -- all of which reduce body fat, making them vulnerable during lean periods. Female bears give birth in the winter and stop feeding in the winter months -- living instead off their stored fat. Their milk, which is high in fat content, keeps the cubs healthy. But lowered body fat could make females weaker and threaten survival for both mother and cubs during the winter. Another reason for the delay in the listing could have been the proposed oil exploration in the Chukchi sea. Scientists say the Arctic ice cap has shrunk by a fifth in the past three decades. But US officials have been careful to stress that the protection for bears would not lead to any measures to prevent climate change, or for that matter, oil drilling. Moreover, neighbouring Canada which is closer to the pole, does not offer the bears any protection. Decisions on protecting bears are the prerogative of provinces. The government of Nunavut, home to 15,000 bears, more than half the global population, protested the new US listing, as organising bear hunts for US residents is a major source of income for the Nunavut people. But the new law in the US makes it illegal for trophy hunters to bring bear hides home.