ESA Listing Not Needed for Polar Bears

Published March 1, 2007

Despite healthy polar bear populations upwards of 20,000 bears worldwide, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced on December 27 the Bush administration’s plan to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Kempthorne’s announcement began a 12-month period of public comment and scientific review.

Global Warming Blamed

While acknowledging polar bear populations are not currently in decline, Kempthorne stated in a news release, “we are concerned that the polar bears’ habitat may literally be melting.” If the bear is listed as threatened, it will be the first time a species was placed on the Endangered Species list based on the threat of global warming.

Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council had previously sued the Bush administration, attempting to force it to list the species at threatened.

Environmental activist groups have offered anecdotal evidence that four polar bears drowned while swimming in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea, and that three polar bears attacked and ate other polar bears, allegedly due to hunger.

In addition, environmentalists contend human activities are causing global warming and that such warming will melt most of the ice at the North Pole within 50 years. If that happens, they argue, polar bears will be unable to hunt seals, their preferred prey, without the polar ice.

Populations Are Growing

Environmental activists have presented only one academic study that shows any negative effect of warming temperatures on polar bears. That study examined only one population of polar bears, in Canada’s Western Hudson Bay, and linked the early breakup of ice in the bay to a 21 percent decline in the polar bear population.

Other, more comprehensive research suggests the plight of that one population does not reflect the polar bear population trend as a whole.

Since the 1970s, while much of the world was warming, polar bear numbers increased dramatically, from roughly 5,000 to 25,000 bears, a higher polar bear population than has existed at any time in the twentieth century. Scientists believe polar bears thrived in the past in temperatures even warmer than at present–during the medieval warm period 1,000 years ago and during the Holocene Climate Optimum between 5,000 and 9,000 years ago.

Thrive During Warm Times

Polar bears have thrived during warmer climates because they are omnivores, like their cousins the brown and black bears. Though polar bears eat seals more than any other food source, research shows they have a varied diet. When other foods are available–including fish, kelp, caribou, ducks, sea birds, musk ox, and walrus carcasses–they take advantage of it.

Dr. Mitchell Taylor, a biologist with Nunavut Territorial government in Canada, pointed out in testimony to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that modest warming may be beneficial to bears since it creates better habitat for seals and would dramatically increase growth of blueberries, upon which bears gorge themselves when available.

Taylor explained Alaska’s polar bear population is stable and recent research shows the polar bear population in Canada alone has increased 25 percent from 12,000 to 15,000 during the past decade, with 11 of Canada’s 13 polar bear populations stable or increasing in number. Where polar bear weight and numbers are declining, Taylor thinks the cause is too many bears competing for food, not Arctic warming.

Climate scientist David Legates said shrinking Arctic sea ice may be a temporary, local phenomenon not linked to global warming, especially as the polar ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are not in decline.

“Russian coastal-station records of both the extent of sea ice and the thickness of fast ice (ice fixed to the shoreline or seafloor) extending back 125 years show significant variability over 60- to 80-year periods,” said Legates.

Enviro Group Refutes Alarmism

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has written on the threats allegedly posed to polar bears from global warming. According to the WWF, there are approximately 22,000 polar bears in about 20 distinct populations worldwide. Only two bear populations–accounting for about 16.4 percent of the total number of bears–are decreasing, and they are in areas where air temperatures have actually fallen, such as the Baffin Bay region.

By contrast, another two populations–about 13.6 percent of the total number–are growing, and they live in areas where air temperatures have risen, near the Bering Strait and the Chukchi Sea.

As for the rest, 10 populations representing about 45.4 percent of the total number of bears are stable, and the status of the remaining six populations is unknown.

Ulterior Motives

Many analysts see the proposal to list the polar bear as threatened as not so much about the welfare of the bears themselves but as an effort to force the Bush administration to adopt regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Steven Milloy, publisher of and an adjunct scholar with the National Center for Policy Analysis, said the media attention at the Kempthorne news conference did not revolve around whether the bears were actually at risk, but rather whether the announcement meant “the Bush administration was caving on global warming.”

Milloy noted, “If the administration admits that the bear is dying due to climate change, it may be forced to start energy rationing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act. This is what the environmentalists filing the lawsuit had in mind all along.”

H. Sterling Burnett ([email protected]) is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

For more information …

Vanishing Kingdom: The Melting Realm of the Polar Bear, published by the World Wildlife Fund, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #20439.

Dr. David Legates’ May 15, 2006 study for the National Center for Policy Analysis, Climate Science: Change and Its Impacts, is also available through PolicyBot™. Search for document #19236.