Photo: Polar bears walking on thin ice

Last week, the U.S. government listed the polar bear as a threatened species under its Endangered Species Act (Credit: Stefan Cook via Flickr).

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Last week, the U.S. government listed the polar bear as a threatened species under its Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Interior Department made the decision under pressure, including legal petitions, from environmental organizations. Its reluctance to legally protect the species is evident in the caveats it has placed on the listing, most notably limiting the implications for U.S. climate-change policy. Nevertheless, the ruling does give polar bears more protection in the U.S. than in Canada.

Despite similar pressure from conservation groups in Canada, and despite recommendations from the federal government's own committee of experts on endangered wildlife, little has been done to acknowledge the precarious position of the polar bear in this country. In April, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed the polar bear (_Ursus maritimus_) as a species of "special concern" — which is one step below a "threatened" listing and two steps below "endangered" — but the government has not yet listed it as such under the federal Species at Risk Act. The bear was also assessed as "special concern" in 1991, 1992, and 2002, but in 2005, the federal government referred the issue back to COSEWIC for a reassessment. The lesser designation is to reflect the fact that the species was evaluated as a whole; although the decline of some populations has been well studied, other polar bear populations aren't yet showing declines.

The bear is protected to some extent under provincial law: Manitoba, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador have all listed it under provincial endangered species acts.

Thirteen of the world's 19 distinct polar bear populations — or 15,000 of the Arctic's 20,000 to 25,000 bears — live in Canada, with 12 of those populations living a least partly in Nunavut. Studies have found that numbers for five populations are declining. But the factors in those declines — including melting ice flows caused by global warming, habitat loss, overhunting of some populations, increased shipping traffic and oil and gas exploration, and persistent organic pollutants — may put other populations at risk as well.

Although Canada's Environment Minister, John Baird, acknowledged the role of global warming in commenting on the U.S decision, both the current government and the previous Liberal government have been dragging their feet on the issues of global warming and polar bear protection.

The U.S. government took pains to ensure the polar bear's new legal status is not used to address the main cause of the problem. According to the New York Times, U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said it would be "wholly inappropriate" to use the listing to deal with greenhouse gases that cause global warming. That, despite his admission that "the decision was driven by overwhelming scientific evidence that 'sea ice is vital to polar bears' survival,' and all available scientific models show that the rapid loss of ice will continue."

Minister Baird has at least come around to expressing concern about the link. "Let's be clear that there's no doubt that global warming is a major factor and a major concern in this," Minister Baird told the Vancouver Sun after the U.S. announcement. "It's not just global warming, but it's human-induced global warming which is what we need to take action on."

The international community has also flagged global warming as a major threat to the survival of polar bears. On listing the polar bear as a "vulnerable" species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature stated: "Due to their long generation time and the current greater speed of global warming, it seems unlikely that polar bear will be able to adapt to the current warming trend in the Arctic. If climatic trends continue polar bears may become extirpated from most of their range within 100 years."

With global warming opening up northern seaways to more shipping and oil and gas exploration, the federal government must do more to protect polar bear habitat, on land and at sea.

COSEWIC's recommendation that the polar bear be listed as "special concern" under the Species at Risk Act will go to government in August. Although a listing of "threatened" would lead to better protection, the "special concern" listing would at least require the federal government to prepare a management plan that identifies key threats and the means to address them. Provincial and territorial protection is a patchwork approach; a national vision is needed. Minister Baird must ensure that a management plan does more than outline plans for monitoring and research. It must also addresses the root of the problem by finding more ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Until this occurs, the polar bear will remain on thin ice.

May 23, 2008

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