Polar bears, the poster-species for climate change, have been the subject of reports about new or growing threats in 2010: One story noted that the warming Arctic is pushing grizzlies north into polar bear territory, while another questioned whether polar bears can change their diet as their icy habitat melts. But the journal Nature this week brought an antidote to all that doom and gloom. A study modeling the Arctic climate suggests that it’s still not too late to protect the polar bear habitat, and therefore save the polar bear. The world just needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The question is one of tipping points: Is the total demise of the Arctic summer sea ice already inevitable, or could a slowing of emissions also slow down the ice loss?
The dramatic retreat of Arctic sea ice in the summer of 2007 prompted some researchers to warn that the system may have reached a tipping point that would lead to the disappearance of summer sea ice within the next several decades, regardless of actions humans took to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. That concern, in turn, helped elevate the polar bear to climate-icon status and reportedly fed into then-President George W. Bush’s decision in 2008 to list the bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The new study, however, finds no “tipping point” now or in this century in Arctic sea-ice decline, but rather a relatively steady fall-off in ice extent as average temperatures increase. [Christian Science Monitor]
Study author Steven Amstrup, formerly of the U.S. Geological Survey and now at Polar Bears International, modeled five different scenarios for greenhouse emissions in the future. He saw a linear relationship between rising temperatures brought on by those emissions and the retreat of Arctic ice. What he didn’t see was a sharp sudden drop, a point at which crossing some temperature boundary led to an irrevocable disappearance of the ice that would doom the bears.
The 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]
Up north in the Canadian province of Manitoba, polar bears are receiving some unwelcome guests. Researchers have seen grizzly bears moving into the area for the first time, and that might not be good news for the already-troubled polar bears.
Linda Gormezano and her team, who are publishing the study (pdf) in Canadian Field-Naturalist, weren’t even looking for grizzlies when they started to spot the huge mammals; they were flying around counting fox dens. Before 1996, there was no evidence that grizzly bears encroached on polar bear territory. From that year on, however, there have been at least 12 sightings, negating the prior theory that the barren landscape north of the Hudson Bay was impassable, in terms of resources, for migrating grizzly bears [Discovery News]. If grizzlies can survive there, Gormezano says, they’ll probably want to stay, because there’s a bevy of caribou, fish, and other good things to eat.
The Obama administration plans to designate more than 200,000 square miles in Alaska as protected, critical habitat for the endangered polar bear, the Interior Department announced yesterday. The proposed area covers a vast swath of sea ice off Alaska’s northwest coast, as well as barrier islands and a coastal region where the bears make their dens. The area, the largest single designation of protected habitat for any species, encompasses the entire range of the two polar bear populations that exist on American land and territorial waters. Government scientists estimate that there are roughly 3,500 bears in the two groups, known the Chukchi Sea and the Southern Beaufort Sea populations [The New York Times]. The bears are threatened by the gradual disappearance of their sea ice habitat due to global warming.
The move could lead to new restrictions on offshore drilling for oil and gas in Alaska’s waters. Federal law prohibits agencies from taking actions that may adversely affect critical habitat and interfere with polar bear recovery…. Designation as critical habitat would not, in itself, bar oil or gas development, but would make consideration of the effect on polar bears and their habitat an explicit part of any government-approved activity [AP]. The proposed federal rule will now be subject to public comment, and the final rule is expected to be announced next year.
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80beats: 2 Trillion Tons of Polar Ice Lost in 5 Years, and Melting Is Accelerating
DISCOVER: Polar Bears (Finally) Make the Endangered Species List
Image: flickr / longhorndave
The Obama administration announced on Friday that it will keep a Bush-era rule that limits the steps that the government can take to protect polar bears. The rule prevents the Endangered Species Act from being used to curb greenhouse gas emissions, even though those emissions contribute to the shrinking of polar bear habitat by causing global warming and melting Arctic sea ice. The decision comes despite recent moves to undo former president Bush’s environmental legacy. It was announced on Friday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who rejected special authority given to him by Congress and the pleas of Democratic lawmakers, environmentalists and scientists to overturn the regulation [Greenwire].
According to federal officials, the Endangered Species Act was written for a different kind of threat. In cases where an animal is threatened by logging, trapping or land development, it is used to identify—and punish—individual actions that harm them. That framework cannot be applied to climate change, they said, because the sources of that problem are global [San Francisco Chronicle]. Salazar said that the polar bear will still be listed as “threatened,” but instead of protecting it through the Endangered Species Act, the administration would push for legislation to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. A “comprehensive global change strategy” is needed, he said.
The Obama administration is once again working to reverse the path of former president Bush in another series of environmental policy changes, with two moves in particular looking to some like a crackdown on the coal industry. The Justice Department announced this week that it will challenge Bush’s mountaintop coal mining rules, the EPA has withdrawn a permit for a coal power plant scheduled to be built on Navajo land, and the Interior Department has strengthened endangered species rules.
On Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asked a federal court to abandon a rule approved during the final days of the Bush administration that allows coal mining companies to dump their waste near waterways. Prior to the change, regulations in place since 1983 have barred mining companies from dumping waste within 100 feet of streams if the disposal would diminish water quality or quantity [AP]. However, the Interior Department’s move didn’t go far enough for some environmentalists, who oppose this method of coal mining in general, regardless of the proximity of waste dumping to streams. In mountaintop removal operations, miners blast away large areas of a mountain in order to expose the buried coal seams. A spokeswoman for environmental law firm Earthjustice notes that Salazar’s move won’t halt the practice of mining itself, and says that reverting to the status quo is not enough because it won’t prevent coal companies from filling valleys with mine waste. “That’s not helping the communities concerned with mountaintop removal” [AP].
In another step toward erasing the environmental footprint left by his predecessor, President Obama issued a memo yesterday temporarily requiring federal agencies to once again consult wildlife experts on how their actions might affect endangered species. The memo will revive a decades-old practice under the Endangered Species Act that calls for agencies to consult with either the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on whether their projects could affect imperiled species. On Dec. 16, the Bush administration allowed agencies to waive such reviews if they decided, on their own, that the actions would not harm vulnerable plants and animals [Washington Post].
In an effort to “help restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act,” President Obama directed the Interior and Commerce Departments to review the Bush regulation, and until the review is complete, Mr. Obama’s memorandum says, agencies must return to the former practice of seeking and acting on scientific advice [The New York Times]. Read More