Why should we care about the polar bear?

Now don't talk to me about the polar bear
Dont talk to me about ozone layer
Aint so much of anything these days, even the air
They're running out of rhinos, What do I care ?
Lets hear it for the dolphin, Lets hear it for the trees
Aint runnin' out of nothin in my deep freeze

--Mark Knopfler

So the Bush administration finally found a way to officially add the polar bear to the list of endangered species without bringing down the wrath of the robber barons of the petroleum industry. Well, sort of.

Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne's solution was to effectively nullify the Endangered Species Act, which compels the federal government to ensure its actions do not "jeopardise the continued existence" of any listed species. Instead we can now call Ursus maritimus "threatened" but don't have to follow the law thanks to the application of section 4(d) of the Act.

But this is all angels-on-pinhead philosophy. The real question is, what are the real-world consequences of an ESA listing?

To answer that, we need some polar bear ecology. Fortunately, I was commissioned three years ago to write 5,000 words on exactly that. You can find that report here. The most important element to consider is habitat range.

According to Canadian government records, information compiled in 1997 indicates there are between 22,000 and 27,000 Polar Bears in the world, and more than 15,000 in Canada. Of the 19 relatively discrete Polar Bear populations, 14 occur solely, or partially, within Canada.

So whatever the U.S. government does or does not do will not have much of a short-term impact on the majority of the populations of the species. Canada lists it as a species of "special concern," which is a rank lower than the new American designation of "threatened." This is because most populations are still doing fine, and only a few are experiencing declines, most notably the bears that live on the western shore of Hudson Bay. They are the most southerly populations and as such can be expected to feel the effects of a loss of that all-important winter sea ice first.

The fact that that's exactly what's happening is part of the reason why so many scientific reports have concluded that the bears face a serious threat from climate change. Arctic sea ice is melting fast. Last year saw a record summer minimum and most of what's still there is relatively young (thin) ice that some experts say may melt away entirely as soon as this summer. The latest warning from a Japanese group is here and American sea ice guru Mark Serreze recently raised "the possibility that you could become ice free at the North Pole this year."

The reason sea ice is important is polar bears prefer to dine on ringed, harp and bearded seals, all of which bear pups on ice. Walruses and other marine mammals, such as beluga whales, also have evolved to take advantage of the ice, and the bears eat them, too. So take away the ice, you lose the prey, and you get very hungry bears.

So the only way to save the ice that hosts the seals that feed the bears is to stop burning fossil fuels that traps the heat that melts the ice.

But what else happens? Anything newsworthy? If the bear disappears, a few populations of seals might experience some small growth in numbers, at least temporarily, but probably not enough to measure, seeing as how difficult it is to conduct a wildlife census in the Arctic. (Although that could change if the ice goes....)

A handful of tiny Inuit hamlets in Canada's Arctic who rely heavily on income from American hunts looking for that amazing white trophy pelt will have to find another way make a living. The tag that gives the holder the right to shoot a single bear can bring in tens of thousands of dollar to the guides who know where to find them. This is part of the reason why so many Inuit are aggressively demanding the world pay attention to climate change.

[Update: One thing the ESA listing does still do is ban the import of those skins from Canada, so looks like the Inuit won't have much reason to support polar bear conservation now even if they are interested.]

But that's about it. Nobody on Wall Street is going to see stock portfolios take a hit. Nobody on Florida's coast is going to see property washed away. That's going to happen anyway, but not because of the loss of one species of recently evolved bear.

That leaves us with the more abstract, intrinsic value of the world's largest terrestrial carnivore, and the symbolic role it plays in attracting attention to the bigger picture of climate change. Unfortunately, even if the U.S. government did embrace the legal consequences an ESA listing and put in place mandatory and shrinking caps on fossil-fuel emissions, you'd still have to convince the rest of the world to do the same.

So worrying about the listing only makes sense if it compels the government to get serious about negotiations on global, mandatory cuts in emissions. What it does domestically is of secondary importance.

It would be nice to believe that designating species as at risk from climate change will help convince the powers that be to shake our addiction to oil and coal. We should all support enforcement of the ESA and denounce Kempthorne's attempt to do an end-run around his constitutional obligations. But we should probably also keep looking for more immediate threats to human populations, their health and economies if we really want to provoke action.


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But what else happens? Anything newsworthy? If the bear disappears, a few populations of seals might experience some small growth in numbers, at least temporarily, but probably not enough to measure, seeing as how difficult it is to conduct a wildlife census in the Arctic.

I recently watched the Blue Planet/Planet Earth combo and the section on Polar Bears showed many other animals living off the bits they left behind.

Hi, I'm just wondering, why nobody in the US seems to discuss the obvious influence of Al Gores documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" in this case - see my (german) posting on Neurons.