Feds Give Polar Bears ESA Protection

Published July 1, 2008

The U.S. Department of the Interior, on the advice of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has decided to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The listing represents the first time a species has been given protected status based not on current animal population trends but instead on speculative climate models.

Survived Warmer Temps

In announcing the May 14 decision, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said he was “forced” by science and the Endangered Species Act, which he called “inflexible.”

Kempthorne asserted computer models projecting substantial Arctic ice loss and speculation polar bears would face a threat of extinction were the best available science, even though polar bears have thrived during extended periods of temperatures significantly warmer than the present. Global temperatures have been warmer than today for most of the past 10,000 years, scientists note, and Arctic temperatures during the most recent interglacial period–125,000 years ago–were a full 6 degrees Celsius warmer than today.

Decision Criticized

Leading scientists who have studied global warming, the Arctic, and polar bear impacts criticized the decision as ignoring real-world evidence in favor of speculative computer models that have consistently predicted more warming than has actually occurred.

Willie Soon, Ph.D., a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, pointed out computer models improperly assume the current short-term decline in Arctic sea ice will continue for an extended period of time, even though Arctic temperature and sea ice conditions have typically fluctuated back and forth between warm and cold spells.

“The globe has warmed and cooled a whole lot more dramatically than we currently observed in the last 100 years or so, and yet polar bears, as a species, clearly survived both much warmer and much cooler times,” Soon said.

“The scientific puzzle is really more on how polar bears survived ice ages, when there was little to eat and so much ice preventing them from getting to the seals” that are a big part of their diet when they can get them, Soon noted.

“Thirty years’ worth of data can hardly be called ‘climate,’ yet these folks are calling it some trends that will promise the demise of polar bears that had survived much warmer and colder times,” said Soon. “This is why this bear listing story is mostly political.”

Sound Science Ignored

“This decision represents a conflict between politics and science,” said Scott Armstrong, a forecasting expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Polar bear populations have been increasing in recent decades, so there is no current problem. The concern is based on forecasts. However, the government forecasts used to support the decision violate basic scientific principles and thus provide no scientific support for the listing.

“There are no scientific forecasts that would suggest a reduction in polar bear populations,” Armstrong added. “It would be improper, then, to designate polar bears as endangered. Application of proper forecasting methods suggests a small short-term rise followed by a leveling off. We provide full disclosure to support these statements at publicpolicyforecasting.com and at theclimatebet.com. In the long term, science will prevail.”

Responding to similar concerns expressed by many in the scientific community, the Alaska Legislature is proposing a $2 million study of polar bears to ensure sound science is utilized in determining whether they are threatened by global warming.

Robert Ferguson, president of the Science and Public Policy Institute, noted the federal decision contradicts polar bear research evaluated by the Canadian government.

“Canadians, who manage two-thirds of all [polar] bears, just reviewed their listing status and decided not to up-list the bear to a more serious status,” Ferguson said.

E. Jay Donovan ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.