Protecting Polar Bears
With sea ice melting beneath its feet, the polar bear is among the earliest and most dramatic victims of global warming. Some scientists predict its extinction by the end of this century. Yet Andrew Wetzler, a Chicago-based wildlife attorney for NRDC, sees good news in recent U.S. proposals that would protect polar bears from hunting and safeguard their Alaskan habitat. He discussed these latest developments with OnEarth.
So, is there hope for the polar bear?
There is some good news. First, under the Endangered Species Act, the United States has proposed setting aside very large areas of essential polar bear habitat in Alaska to protect them from oil and gas drilling and other threats. The United States has also proposed tighter restrictions on international trade and trophy hunting -- both of which still go on at very high levels in Canada -- through the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species. In and of themselves, these two things are not going to reverse course for the polar bear, but it's important to make whatever progress we can. Here you have this magnificent creature, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, whose habitat is literally melting away before our eyes.
Would international protections eliminate all hunting of polar bears?
No, they wouldn't. Nor would we want it to. Subsistence hunting would still go on in both Canada and Alaska. NRDC supports subsistence hunting so long as it's sustainable. The problem is that the hunting rate in Canada is unsustainable, and we believe that it's largely driven by the commercial market. The other thing to keep in mind is that if you look at global warming models, the only place where polar bears are likely to exist at the end of the century is in the central archipelago of Canadian islands in the Arctic Sea. It's going to be the last refuge of polar bears.
Could polar bears adapt to an environment without ice?
Very few scientists believe that polar bears can survive without sea ice coverage; you don't find polar bear populations anywhere there isn't significant yearlong sea ice coverage. They need it for almost all of their essential life functions: to migrate, find mates, and in the case of some populations, to den and raise their cubs. But most importantly, they need it to find food. Eighty percent of the polar diet is seals, and those seals are dependent on ice. Without access to sea ice, polar bears can't eat. As sea ice disappears, they must travel greater distances and spend longer periods of time fasting. Slowly, they begin to die out from nutritional stress and starvation. Scientists have observed polar bears drowning in storms, showing signs of severe weight loss, starving to death, and even resorting to cannibalism. In some populations, biologists expect to see the polar bears grow so thin that they can no longer reproduce.
How many polar bears are there in the world?
About 20,000 to 25,000. We don't know, historically, what the populations were in the past. Polar bears reached a low of maybe 6,000 in the early 1960's because of widespread hunting, until a 1973 treaty among countries with polar bears -- Russia, the United States, Norway, Canada, and Denmark -- restricted or banned much of that hunting (although hunting is still unsustainably high in some places, particularly Canada). So the populations recovered. People who oppose additional protections say, "Oh, 30 years ago there were only 6,000, and now there are 20,000, so how can you say they're endangered?" But a lot of very prominent biologists have pointed out that it's an apples-to-oranges comparison. We might be shooting fewer of them, allowing the population to recover somewhat, but their habitat is still disappearing, which means they're still in very real trouble.
The protected zone for polar bears in Alaska that the Interior Department proposed looks relatively small on the map. Is it large enough to make a difference?
Actually, it's the largest critical habitat designation in history: more than 200,000 square miles. The onshore areas may appear relatively small, but if you think about the size of Alaska -- it is one-third the size of the lower 48 states combined -- it's not actually so small. The designated area includes most of the important polar bear denning habitats, and, more significantly, it encompasses offshore areas of sea ice, which polar bears need to survive.
How optimistic are you that these proposals will actually become law?
The critical habitat designation in Alaska will happen in some form. The final rule, which will come out in about a year, may be somewhat different from the proposed rule, but we're hopeful it will still be strong. It may well be subject to challenge by the oil industry or other groups, so we'll have to take that as it comes. The protection of the polar bear under the international convention is going to be a challenge, but we're hopeful. You have to get the majority of 173 countries to vote your way. The polar bear very clearly meets the treaty's criteria for "uplisting." But we can't yet know exactly how a vote of that many nations (in Doha in March) is going to go.
Most of us live far from the Arctic. Can we do anything to help protect polar bears and polar bear habitat?
First, support efforts to curb global warming. If we don't deal with that problem, then the polar bear and thousands of other species are going to vanish, and they're going to vanish in our lifetime. Second, for polar bears specifically, we must give them the help they need to weather the global warming crisis. That means supporting U.S. efforts for strong international protections against international trade and trophy hunting and by supporting strong habitat protections here in the United States.