Polar Bears Win Protection at the Eleventh Hour

photo courtesy Eric Cheng via Flickr

Despite lobbying from Greenpeace and the Centre for Biological Diversity to not let it happen, despite protests from trophy hunters and oil companies and despite opposition by Inuit groups, the Bush Administration today reluctantly listed the Polar bear as a threatened species.

This has been an issue that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been pushing for years and today the objective was reached.

See: Sea Shepherd Calls for the Abolishment of Polar Bear Hunting  May 5th, 2006

See: Sea Shepherd Demands Abolition of Polar Bear Hunting. October 16th, 2006

See: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Calls for Listing of the Polar Bear as Threatened: December 12th, 2006

See: Canada Fidgets and Fudges on Polar Bear Protection. April 28th, 2008

A coalition of conservation groups including Sea Shepherd had to petition and sue to get the decision passed but after a three year legal battle with bureaucrats the decision is now final.

The Polar bear is now officially on the United States Endangered Species List.

The Fish and Wildlife Service listing will ignite an entire range of conservation efforts under the Endangered Species Act, including possibly protecting Arctic territory coveted by oil and gas companies.

Last month, Canada in its typical bureaucratic wishy- washy waffling way declared that it had a "special concern" for the most dramatic wildlife symbol of the High North, but also declared that polar bears are not threatened with extinction. Canada called for further studies and had been calling for further studies since 1991. Most likely they will be calling for further studies in response to the U.S. decision.

The Inuit government in Nunavik has been totally opposed to protecting the bear because of jobs provided to Inuit guides by polar bear trophy hunters.

Greenpeace opposed the listing because of a politically correct position that they could not oppose the hunting of polar bears supported by Native communities

Melanie Duchin, with Greenpeace in Anchorage, Alaska, said her group was not against the hunting of polar bears. "If the species of certain populations against the backdrop of global warming can sustain a commercial hunt, than we're not going to oppose it," said Duchin in May 2006.

Kassie Siegel, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, said at the time that if polar bears were listed under the Endangered Species Act, it would affect the importation of polar bear trophies to the United States. However, she said there were precedents whereby trophies can be allowed for animals listed under the legislation.

"We want the sport hunting to be sustainable," Siegal said. "We have some concerns about hunting levels in Greenland, in parts of Russia, and in some parts of Canada, but it is not the intent of this petition to impact sport hunting in Canada."

Unfortunately about two-thirds of the world's polar bears reside in Canada. Whereas Canada does not see a threat, the U.S. Geologic Survey is warning that melting Arctic sea ice threatens two-thirds of the world's polar bears with extinction by mid-century.

The decision to protect, or not protect, the polar bear has huge policy implications for both countries. Not only does acknowledging the plight of the polar bear formally mean acknowledging the fact of global warming, but it would presumably require governments to do something about curtailing the pollution causing global warming. President George Bush expressly ruled out making such broad policy decisions based on the Endangered Species Act (or the Clean Air Act, for that matter).

More directly, an "endangered" declaration would also curtail development of polar bear habitat in the Arctic by oil and gas companies.

Still, the Bush Administration has been accused of delaying its decision on polar bears long enough to sign new leases covering vast swaths of Arctic lands where polar bears, for now, still roam.

The Conservative anti-environmentalist Harper government in Canada is not expected to make a decision on the polar bear anytime soon. This government is more hostile to conservation than even the Bush administration.

The fight to save the Polar bear is far from over but this decision can be counted as a major battle won.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society would like to thank all the Sea Shepherd supporters who wrote, faxed, phoned, e-mailed and supported the listing of the Polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.