Polar Bear Meltdown?

This week the Bush administration proposed to list the polar bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. It’s a futile gesture that only signals a weakening in the Bush administration’s heretofore strong stance against global warming hysteria.

The proposal resulted from a lawsuit settlement the Bush administration reached in February with Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council. In return for these groups dropping their effort to force the Bush administration to grant polar bears “threatened” status under the ESA, the administration agreed to commence a rulemaking to list the bears.

This doesn’t sound like much of a “deal” – and it’s not. Though the proposal doesn’t legally bind the Bush administration to list polar bears as threatened and the proposal will simmer for at least 12 months during which time the administration says it will seek more information and public comment, based on the fanfare accompanying the proposal’s roll-out, it seems the listing is all but final.

Rather than issuing the proposal in a tentative and low-key manner, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne issued a media release and reigned over a press teleconference where he and the director of Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) touted the proposal. But they quickly lost control of the affair – not to mention their message. The major issue at the press conference became not whether the polar bear was truly endangered, but whether the rulemaking was a signal that the Bush administration was beginning to melt on global warming.

Before we get to the dominant issue of the press conference, however, let’s first answer the key questions raised by the proposal. Are polar bears endangered? What would the proposal accomplish, given that we already protect polar bears under several laws and treaties?

There are no data indicating a downward trend in U.S. or global polar bear populations – that’s according to the FWS’ own fact sheet for the proposal. There apparently are some reports of lower-weight polar bears and reduced cub survival in certain areas, but there are no firm explanations for these reports and their significance is unknown.

Now here’s the kicker: the U.S. government, the same one that now wants to classify the polar bears as “threatened,” also sanctions the hunting of polar bears for trophies. In the proposal’s media release, the FWS stated in an unconcerned, matter-of-fact fashion that, “[s]ome Native communities in arctic Canada also obtain significant financial benefits from allocating a portion of their overall subsistence quota to trophy hunters from the United States and other nations…”

The FWS says that the projected threat to the polar bears is the future loss of their sea-ice habitat – this is the sole legal grounds for the proposed listing. Polar bears spend most of their lives on sea ice and recent data appear to indicate, according to the FWS, that sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is decreasing. The FWS even mentioned predictions of an ice-free Arctic Ocean “within the foreseeable future.”

But such predictions and the potential consequences to polar bears are highly uncertain. No one knows exactly what’s happening with Arctic sea ice, much less what the future holds. The Greenland ice melt, for example, was actually larger in 1991 than in 2005 and the Greenland ice cap is thickening. Data from the Canadian Ice Service indicate there has been no precipitous drop-off in ice cap amount or thickness since 1970.

Let’s keep in mind that polar bears have survived much warmer times than we are now experiencing – like 1,000 years ago when the Vikings farmed Greenland during the Medieval Climate Optimum and 5,000-9,000 years ago during the period known as the Holocene Climate Optimum.

But even giving the proposal the benefit of the doubt, will it accomplish anything?

When I asked Secretary Kempthorne that question – pointing out that even if the polar bear habit was shrinking because of melting ice there isn’t a credible climate scientist in the world that believes anything could be done to stop the ice from melting, and that legalized polar bear harvesting seems to contradict any seriousness concerning threatened species status – the response delivered by the FWS director was not very reassuring.

In a bureaucratic tone that only government functionaries can muster, he said they were just following the law. But even that is debatable since the proposal’s origins lie in the dubious deal cut with environmental activist groups.

The reporters at the ill-conceived and poorly-executed press conference were eager to interpret the proposal as a weakening of President Bush’s position against global warming regulation. While Secretary Kempthorne and FWS staff repeatedly denied that the proposal was any sort of reflection on President Bush’s policy, their denials sounded evasive rather than sincere.

The proposal will, in all likelihood, make it more difficult for the president to maintain his position against global warming regulation. As the Washington Post reported this week, “Identifying polar bears as threatened with extinction could have an enormous political and practical impact. As the world's largest bear and as an object of children's affection as well as Christmastime Coca-Cola commercials, the polar bear occupies an important place in the American psyche.”

It’s distressing that the Bush administration is opening the door for the all-important issue of global warming regulation to be influenced more by our embrace of a soda mascot rather than science.