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NAFTA commission to hear polar bear listing dispute

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Conservation groups are challenging Canada’s decision on polar bear conservation. Photo courtesy USFWS/Scott Schliebe.

Conservation status of polar bears in Canada challenged by petition to international trade group

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Endangered polar bears are at the center of an an unusual dispute that will be heard by an environmental commission established under NAFTA.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation announced late last t month that it will consider a petition challenging Canada’s decision to list polar bears as a species of special concern instead of listing them as threatened or endangered. The commission announced the petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity provides sufficient documentation of Canada’s violations of its own laws to warrant an official response from the country’s government.

The special concern status gives polar bears no substantive protection and conflicts with the 2008 United States decision to list polar bears as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act because of ongoing and projected population declines from climate change.

“Climate change threatens to wipe polar bears off the map, but Canada continues to shrug off their plight,” said Center for Biological Diversity attorney Sarah Uhlemann. “Canada’s home to the majority of the world’s polar bears, and as such it has a duty to lead efforts to protect the species … not be the greatest obstacle to their protection. I’m hoping this finding helps push the country to recognize the serious threats facing polar bears and act to protect them.”

Scientists predict that more than two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will disappear by 2050 because of climate change, which is melting the sea ice they depend on to survive. Some populations, like the famed Western Hudson Bay population near Churchill, have already suffered serious declines. Yet Canada refuses to recognize the threat global warming poses to the species, specifically ignoring climate impacts on the species when making the “special concern” decision last year.

Canada now has until January 23, 2013, to provide an official response to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

Separately, in January 2012 the Center filed a formal request with the U.S. government seeking trade sanctions against Canada for approving unsustainable hunting quotas for Hudson Bay polar bears over the objections of polar bear scientists and in violation of the 1973 Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears, a treaty signed by both Canada and the United States. More than 600 polar bears are killed in Canada each year, including through sport hunting, and about half of those bears are later exported as skins and rugs, primarily to Asia.

While the United States has yet to act on the Center’s sanctions request, the American government has, with Russian support, proposed a ban on the international trade in polar bear parts under the CITES convention, a treaty that protects imperiled species from harm caused by international trade. A decision on the trade ban will be made at a March 2013 CITES meeting.

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