Feb. 9, 2006 – Pointing to "substantial scientific and commercial information" indicating that polar bear habitats are threatened by increasing global temperatures, a federal agency yesterday announced that it is reviewing the status of the bears and considering listing them as "threatened."
The US Fish and Wildlife Service announcement comes as the agency faces a lawsuit over failing to respond to petitions on the issue filed last year by three environmental groups.
Last February, the Center for Biological Diversity first petitioned the FWS for polar bear habitat protections. In a statement accompanying the petition, the Center maintained that global warming is a direct threat to the bearsâ€™ natural habitat and warned: "Polar bears may become extinct by the end of this century because their sea-ice habitat is literally melting away."
The Service failed to respond within the 90 days required under the Endangered Species Act, prompting the Center to file a lawsuit in December. It was joined in the suit by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Greenpeace. The Interior Department has not addressed charges that it failed to answer the petition, instead, referring to the December legal action as a "letter," FWS yesterday initiated a "12-month finding" period.
In a notice appearing today in the Federal Register, the Service will open a 60-day public comment period on the proposal to declare polar bears "threatened." The Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC and Greenpeace are encouraging people to write in and to urge the Wildlife Service to both list the bears and cite global warming as a contributing factor.
"Listing [polar bears] under the Endangered Species Act will provide important protections for the bears, including a requirement that federal agencies responsible for large greenhouse-gas emissions consider their impacts on polar bears and their Arctic habitat," Greenpeace spokesperson Kert Davies said in a group statement. "The bears are just the beginning of a much bigger problem. By protecting them now, we will be protecting ourselves in the future."
The groups cited government and other information citing a ten-year decline in the speciesâ€™s population, from around 1,100 in 1995 to just 950 as of 2004. In late 2005, scientists documented what they believed were the first cases where retreating sea ice caused polar bears to drown to death.
Melting Arctic ice is a documented phenomenon that has recently accelerated as temperatures steadily rise. The vast majority of reputable scientific associations say evidence supports the conclusion that the warming is caused by human activity, most notably the release of greenhouse gases from energy consumption.
At a conference in Alaska this week, American Meteorological Society fellow Robert Corell said polar bears could be extinct in less than 100 years.
According to NASA scientists, 2005 was the warmest year on record. The National Climatic Data Center announced that January was the hottest ever recorded, with temperatures a full 8.5 degrees above average.