ScienceSkepticism

Polar Bear Listing: Good Move or Empty Act?

Polar bears seem to have received some help from the U.S. government this week.

No, not those crazy people who jump into ice cold water every winter because . . .  umm . . . because they . . .  Okay, so I have no idea why those folks subject themselves to the freezing water. Perhaps they see the dive as a victory over a long winter. Or perhaps they just feel that their genitalia is too large. I don’t know. I’m talking about actual polar bears.

Earlier this week, the United States Department of Interior used the Endangered Species Act to list the bears as a “Threatened” species.

Here’s the thing though, recent estimates of the global polar bear population indicate the number of bears roaming Arctic regions today has more than quadrupled from 5,000 to almost 25,000 since the 1970s. Upon learning that, the question that immediately springs to mind is: If the polar bear population has indeed grown in such a manner, why then would any agency consider them endangered?

Well, this saga is an interesting one; one that involves a lot of different factors, and one that should appeal nicely to your skeptic sense.

As you probably know, polar bears live exclusively in the Arctic portions of five nations: The U.S. (Alaska), Russia, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), and Norway (the Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen Islands). In the early 1970s, since there was no logistically sound way to know for sure, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, along with related agencies from those five countries, each estimated worldwide polar bear populations. This project, where pseudo-collaborative on the surface, mostly left the individual parties to collect numbers on their own, essentially producing a handful of different estimates for the number of polar bears worldwide.

Based on reports from observers in Arctic villages, on ships, and from various other sources, researchers from the U.S. came up with an estimate at that time of roughly 18,000 polar bears. The Canadian Wildlife Service on the other hand, set the number a little higher at 20,000. Researchers in Greenland and on the islands calculated their own numbers. And the Soviet Union submitted the lowest total, estimating a worldwide population of 5,000 bears.

Then late in 1973, the five nations signed the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, agreeing to go with the lower Soviet estimate as the official number — the impetus being a desire by the countries involved to enter into a wildlife agreement, which was unprecedented during the Cold War years.

So, this well-intentioned project seems to have been heavily influenced by the political climate of the day.

Of course, even if the Cold War had not been a factor in the final results of the research project, it would still be unclear to us now which estimate was closer to the real number. After 35 years, there’s just no way to know for sure anymore.

However, it is widely held that the treaty did in fact have a positive effect on the growth of the polar bear population, as it placed strong restrictions on trophy hunting, outlawing the controversial practice of hunting polar bears by helicopter. The U.S. still allowed natives in Alaska some subsistence hunting, but for the most part, slaughter of the animals in most of the five nations ceased, and the numbers improved.

According to Merritt Clifton, the editor of Animal People , Canada was the last Arctic nation to curtail large-scale hunting of polar bears. According to a 1973 United Press International story Clifton uncovered, Canada’s Northwest Territories allowed a quota of 422 bears to be killed in a year.

In addition to the sketchy estimates, this is another element of the story that should stand your skeptic hairs on end.

Now, 422 is a lot of bears; especially when one considers the official estimate of the polar bear population at that time was 5,000. It’s almost 10% of the total. If the numbers were accurate, and this type of hunting quota was the norm in just one area of Canada, it’s difficult to believe a population of 5,000 bears could survive without major difficulties, not to mention go on to quadruple in 30 years.

So, it’s unlikely that the 1973 Soviet estimate was correct. It would take a much larger population to successfully absorb such regular losses and still continue to improve. This, in turn, could very well mean that the difference between the 1970s and 2008 polar bear population estimates is not as great as some have thought. The growth rate may not be as dramatic as it once seemed, lending further merit to the Interior Department’s assessment of polar bears being threatened.

In addition to that, recent research by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) indicates that the polar bear population has plateau-ed. Couple that with further research that shows that the bears themselves are generally thinner and give birth to fewer young, and the Interior Department’s case for the listing appears even stronger.

Still, the current estimate of 22,000 to 25,000 polar bears is too big a population to be at risk for immediate extinction, right?

Well, this is yet another interesting element of the story. The Interior Department made the declaration that polar bears are now threatened not because of direct human interaction, as was the motivation for past measures, but as a result of indirect human impact on the animals; namely the accelerated melting of the polar bear’s Arctic sea-ice habitat, due to the effects of greenhouse gases on global weather patterns.

According to the USGS:

Polar bears are entirely dependent on sea ice as a platform to access the marine mammals that provide their nutritional needs (Amstrup, 2003). In recent years, a warming climate and changing atmospheric circulation patterns have resulted in major changes in the Arctic sea ice environment (Comiso, 2002; Rigor and others, 2002; Comiso and Parkinson, 2004; Rigor and Wallace, 2004; Stroeve and others, 2005).

In short, polar bears are now deemed a threatened species because of global warming. 

Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne said that without the new protections, polar bears could become extinct within 45 years, despite their current numbers. And the recent declaration by his department seems to be a step in the right direction. 

The bad news is, the Interior Department’s action in this case has no effect on U.S. environmental policy. In fact, listing the bears as threatened requires the government to develop a plan to protect the animals, but the new rule also leaves the door open to expanded Arctic oil and gas exploration.

So, where does that leave polar bears? If they are in danger because of global warming, and environmental policy is not effected at all by the listing, how exactly is the government going to protect the animals? Is this just another step to bring awareness of a human problem? Is it really going to help save the mighty polar bear, or is the listing by the Interior Department an empty act?

Thoughts?  

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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5 Comments

  1. So, a group of scientists decided to lie to the world at large about their research for political reasons? That kind of tweaks me the wrong way, though I’m all in favor of the result they were going after. Polar bears are awesome.

    Would the ecological situation now be worse off if that lie hadn’t been told? Did that make it the right thing to do?

  2. So, a group of scientists decided to lie to the world at large about their research for political reasons? That kind of tweaks me the wrong way, though I’m all in favor of the result they were going after. Polar bears are awesome.

    Well, I don’t know if scientists decided to lie to the world per se. I just think they didn’t have a good method for estimating the population at the time, and government agencies, for whatever reason, took it upon themselves to view the Soviet estimate as the “official” number.

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