Polar Bears Candidate for New Federal Protections

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By Andrea Vittorio

Oct. 9 — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering new protections for polar bears as climate change increasingly threatens their icy habitat in the Arctic.

The agency plans to review the polar bear's status to determine whether it should be designated as an endangered species, according to a Federal Register notice set to publish Oct. 13. Since 2008, polar bears have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act—a status they are likely to keep, according to the world's top polar bear conservation group.

Even though they may become endangered eventually, Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International, said “polar bears just aren’t there yet.”

“We may see a point in time where they indeed do qualify for endangered status,” York told Bloomberg BNA, but for now, he thinks they're appropriately classified as threatened.

Still, “we want to do everything we can to protect them,” he added.

Climate Change Biggest Threat 

Polar bears were the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act because of climate change, which is considered the biggest threat to their survival throughout parts of the U.S., Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia.

As the Arctic warms and sea ice melts, the bears are losing their habitat and losing access to seals, their main prey. But they may also be gaining a new meal in the process: dolphins lured north by warmer waters.

If summer sea-ice disappears completely, scientists predict about two-thirds of the world's current polar bear population will be gone by mid-century.

The FWS lacks regulatory bite when it comes to controlling the heat-trapping emissions that contribute to polar bears' habitat loss. So instead, the agency has focused its conservation efforts on issues that it can control, such as preventing over-hunting, protecting denning habit, and avoiding potential human-bear conflicts amid increased shipping, tourism and oil and gas development in the Arctic.

The public will have 60 days to comment on the polar bear's listing status.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at avittorio@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com