Policy Experts Reject Proposal to List Polar Bears as Threatened

Published February 1, 2007

U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proposed on December 27 that polar bears be listed as a “threatened” species, not because their populations are currently in decline but because global warming may threaten them in the future.

Kempthorne’s proposal came in response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A final decision on the listing will be made in December 2007, after a 12-month period of public comment and scientific review.

“Polar bears are one of nature’s ultimate survivors, able to live and thrive in one of the world’s harshest environments,” Kempthorne said. “But we are concerned the polar bear’s habitat may literally be melting.” He cited thinning sea ice caused by global warming as the main threat to the bears.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on December 15, 2005, after the agency failed to respond to petitions the groups had filed earlier in the year to seek protection for the polar bears under the Endangered Species Act.

Not Endangered

According to the World Wildlife Fund, about 22,000 polar bears exist worldwide in 20 distinct populations. The group acknowledges on its Web site that “the species is not currently endangered,” but it expresses concern that the bears’ “future is far from certain” because the bears are not protected “against the biggest man-made threat to their survival: global warming.”

Dr. David Legates, Delaware state climatologist and director of the Center for Climatic Research at the University of Delaware, has analyzed the WWF data and notes they “do not show a temperature-linked decline.” In a May 2006 study for the National Center for Policy Analysis, Legates noted,

  • “Only two of the distinct 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.
  • “Ten populations–comprising about 45.4 percent of the total number of bears –are stable.
  • “Another two populations–about 13.6 percent of the total number–are growing, and they live in areas were air temperatures have risen, such as near the Bering Strait and the Chukchi Sea.

Policy Experts React “The proposed listing of polar bears as a threatened species demonstrates the absurd lengths to which environmental activists will go regarding their global warming obsession,” noted James M. Taylor, managing editor of Environment & Climate News and The Heartland Institute’s senior fellow for environmental policy.

“Many times in recent history Arctic temperatures have been warmer than they are today,” Taylor noted. “Temperatures were warmer 800 years ago during the Medieval Climate Optimum and 2,000 years ago during the Roman Climate Optimum. If polar bears did not go extinct then, when temperatures were warmer, how are they in imminent danger of extinction now?”

The Center for Biological Diversity noted in the December 15, 2005 news release announcing its lawsuit, “If today’s lawsuit is successful, polar bears could become the first mammal to be officially declared at risk due to global warming.”

Chris Horner, a Competitive Enterprise Institute senior fellow specializing in legal-climate issues, expressed skepticism. “We might inquire where to draw the line,” Horner said. “If it makes sense to list thriving species, let’s just call it the ‘cute species list,’ or just ‘species list.'”

Prompting ESA Reform?

Nicole Haynes McCoy, an assistant professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University, suggested Kempthorne’s proposal might prompt Endangered Species Act reform.

“If conservative elected officials are serious about getting the Endangered Species Act reformed, listing the polar bear is a great way to incentivize the process,” McCoy said.

“The sacrifices that will be required of the American public to reduce greenhouse gases in order to protect polar bear habitat will bring key problems of the ESA to the forefront of the American consciousness,” McCoy predicted. “Once you start asking Americans to pay more for power, transportation, and food to maybe save a species, that might be in decline, you are asking for trouble.”

Diane Carol Bast ([email protected]) is vice president of The Heartland Institute and executive editor of Environment & Climate News.

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 http://www.policybot.org 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.