Endangered or Threatened? A New Fight Over Polar Bears' Status

By Andrew Moseman | November 5, 2010 4:07 pm

Polar Bear, Svalbard, NorwayThe clock is suddenly ticking for the U.S. Department of the Interior to defend its classification of the polar bear as “threatened,” rather than the more protective “endangered” classification.

The “threatened” designation dates back to the George W. Bush administration, but in response to a series of lawsuits concerning the polar bear, U.S. District of Columbia District Judge Emmet Sullivan said this week that the government needs to review that decision, because it was not based on a proper reading of the Endangered Species Act.

In his decision, Judge Sullivan said that the agency was wrong to conclude that a species had to be in imminent danger of extinction in order to qualify as an endangered species. He said that the Endangered Species Act was ambiguous as to whether a species had to be on the brink of extinction in order to be considered endangered. He did not rule on the merits. [Wall Street Journal]

If the bears were moved to “endangered,” that switch could bring with it a wave of legal wrangling about how to protect them. Under the current rule, federal regulators can’t set climate policy in order to protect the bears, even though greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for the melting of their sea ice habitat.

The Obama administration upheld the Bush-era policy, declaring that the endangered species law can’t be used to regulate greenhouse gases emitted by sources outside of polar bears’ habitat. If the bears are found to be endangered, however, that could open the door to using the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse gases. [Washington Post]

The Interior Department has until December 23 to respond.

Up in the Arctic, there’s a bit of good news for the bears—and their new prey. Increasingly, polar bears are beginning to rely on the eggs of snow geese as a major foodstuff. But if the bears devour all the eggs and wipe out the geese, that wouldn’t be such a great outcome for either one. Researchers who modeled the predator-prey relationship, along with expected environmental change from global warming, write in the journal Oikos that the bears may indeed devour many of the eggs.

However, climate change will also cause increased variability from year to year, and as a result, there will be some years when there is no overlap at all — either because the geese have fledged earlier, the bears have come ashore later, or both. Those periodic years of “mismatch” will, they conclude, enable snow goose numbers to rebound again. [Discovery News]

Polar bears aren’t the only massive mammal trying to beat the heat of a warming world. Check out the new DISCOVER article on walruses trying to adapt—and the adventures of the scientists who try to study them.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Will the Walrus Withstand a Warmer World?
80beats: Bear Fight! Grizzlies Are Creeping Into Polar Bears’ Canadian Turf
80beats: Polar Bears Will Have a Protected Home in Alaska
80beats: Obama Agrees With Bush: Polar Bears Won’t Drive Global Warming Policy

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • http://clubneko.net nick

    Adaptation or extinction. It’s the only rule of long term survival.

    Amazingly enough, global warming or no, you can’t even get everyone to agree that pollution is bad. The last time I tried that argument, someone told me to stop breathing. There is a frightening disconnect with what people know and/or believe about this subject and the subject of pollution.

  • Steve Case

    There is so much spinning, fudging, cherry picking and lying going on about the entire topic of “Global Warming” polar bears, glaciers, sea level and all the rest of it that it is very difficult to know the truth other than that it is deeply political.

  • JD

    If humans still worked on common sense they could look at the average count today and say for sure if they are endangered or threatened or neither. Settle this dispute and move on with life, instead of gripping over the same old thing.

  • Lorne50

    Show me the proof that carbon dioxide is melting the ice cap in the artic show me the paper that says that come on is this discover mag or the wwf web site i’ve got too it’s hard to tell!!!

  • Bob White

    For 25 years Discover Magazine has catered to the far left pseudo science propaganda seekers and has avoided any pretense of presenting scientific truth. It appears that this article was merely created as a space filler to attract leftist, somnambulistic readers.

    The writer refuses to admit the following scientific facts.
    Polar bear population has increased 5 fold in 50 years.
    Polar bears have been around for at least 100,000 years including millenniums when the earth was much warmer than today.
    The earth was much warmer than today 1,000, 2,000, 4,000 and 8,000 years ago.
    The Northwest Passage has opened up several times in the last 100 years.
    The earth has been cooling for 12 years and will cool for another 20 years before warming.

  • Bigby

    Bravo, Bob.

  • Duncan Brown

    Dear Bob: Where do I start?
    Polar bear numbers started growing in my lifetime, after (and therefore as a result of?) a ban on hunting them!
    The so-called NW passage was a mythical (until now) passage that European explorers in the 1600s and 1700s were seeking, because of the shortcut it would provide to SE Asia where spices and other things were found.
    Your confidence in your claims about past and future temperatures offers the chance to make big money, by simply buying coal or oil futures (i.e. calls) if you want to put your money where your mouth is. That is, under the assumption that fossil fuels will be used into the future.

  • Inuk

    Great comment Nick, everyone is so bought by the fossil fuel industry that environmentally friendly vehicles have been put on the backburner for years while the world comsumes more and more fossil fuels and pollute the air we breathe. It doesn’t matter if it’s carbon dioxide that is warming the ice caps, but look at the smog surrounding big cities, surely it has some kind of impact on the environment as it does in the lungs of the people who live in those cities.
    I see with my own eyes that the north is warming, it may have the opposite effect in more populated ‘southern’ areas, but the north has been losing glaciers and the winter sea ice is not as predictable as it once was, making it more dangerous for inuit to continue their traditional hunting lifestyle. I don’t pay much attention to the weather in other parts of the world, but I know what I see with my own eyes. Yes the earth was warmer 1000, 2000, 4000 and 8000 years ago but was the world subjected to the kind of pollution that humans create today?

  • Brian Too

    The readers of this blog may be interested to know that there is a controversy surrounding the polar bear numbers. Sadly the dividing line is cultural.

    According to official Government of Canada surveys polar bear numbers are falling. As a result hunting restrictions have been put in place.

    According the the local Inuit people, polar bear numbers are rising. They are unhappy about the hunting quotas. A fair number of Inuit still hunt and make a living from the land this way so it’s a big issue.

    Although lifestyles in the North are changing the elders tend to think their lifestyle is under attack. In my opinion though, they are making a linkage between new lifestyles that are less healthy (mostly true) with the idea that the old lifestyles are their salvation (mostly not true).

    One thing has occurred to me. Perhaps the large numbers of bears the Inuit are seeing are a result of sea ice coverage problems. Shorter ice seasons, poor quality ice, and less multi-year ice can result in the bears loitering on shore for a lot longer. The bears want to get out on the ice so they can hunt seals. However they depend upon the ice to provide a solid surface to walk upon the oceans. Polar bears are really good swimmers but they are not whales. They cannot hunt or sleep in the water.

    Therefore shortened ice seasons, which we know are happening, can concentrate the bears at the water’s edge for a lot longer. This might cause there to seem to be more bears than average when in fact there are less.

    Just a pet theory.

  • Bob White

    Duncan Brown: What is your point? Are you showing that it is easy to contradict and not substantiate.

    The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that the polar bear population is currently at 20,000 to 25,000 bears, up from as low as 5,000-10,000 bears in the 1950s and 1960s. A 2002 U.S. Geological Survey of wildlife in the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain noted that the polar bear populations “may now be near historic highs.” The alarm about the future of polar bear decline is based on speculative computer model predictions many decades in the future.

    Of the 13 populations of polar bears in Canada, 11 are stable or increasing in number. They are not going extinct, or even appear to be affected at present,

    “In 1903, Amundsen led the first expedition to successfully traverse Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans”

    Between 1940 and 1942 St. Roch navigated the Northwest Passage, arriving in Halifax harbor on October 11, 1942.

    For a history of the “first times” that the northwest passage has been open try here.

    Note that it has been a headline story for the BBC several times.

    Time magazine reprises a 1937 report of another example.


    In the last 130 years there have warming and cooling phases lasting about 30 years with attendant scare mongering in the popular press.

    The earth has been much warmer 1, 2, 3 5 and 7 thousand years ago.

  • Bob White
  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ Steve Case, Lorne50, Bob White:

    The scientific consensus is strong and clear: heat-trapping gases emitted by humans since the industrial revolution are warming the planet. Here’s a good report on the state of climate science, produced by more than 300 scientists from 160 research groups in 48 countries.

    Here’s a striking global temperature graph from NASA.

    Here’s a study (available for free download) on the credibility of climate scientists on both sides of the “debate” over man-made global warming. It found that 97–98% of the most active and respected researchers in the field agree that human activities are warming our planet; it also found that “the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC [anthropogenic climate change] are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”

    — Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • http://WWW.orangjadahatke.biz Jesusita Caricofe

    foundmostwillagreewith your blog.


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