Feds finalize polar bear conservation plan

Outlook not good as sea ice dwindles

 Eric Regehr, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Can polar bears survive global warming? Photo courtesy Eric Regehr, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Staff Report

A federal recovery plan for endangered polar bears won’t halt the threat of climate change, but it could help dwindling populations of the great Arctic predators persist in the small patches of habitat that will remain after global warming melts most of the polar sea ice.

The plan, released Jan. 9, calls for reducing human-bear conflicts, collaboratively managing subsistence harvest, protecting denning habitat, and minimizing the risk of contamination from oil spills. Most of these actions are already underway, in partnership with Alaska Native communities, nonprofit groups, and industry representatives who participated in the plan’s creation. The plan also calls for increased monitoring and research.

The future of the polar bear is being jeopardized by the rapid loss of its sea-ice habitat. Its fate is not determined by the stars, but by our willingness and ability to address climate change, the agency said in a press release announcing release of the plan.

“This plan outlines the necessary actions and concrete commitments by the Service and our state, tribal, federal and international partners to protect polar bears in the near term,” said Greg Siekaniec, The Service’s Alaska Regional Director. “But make no mistake; without decisive action to address Arctic warming, the long-term fate of this species is uncertain.”

The conservation management plan  focuses on the two U.S. subpopulations of polar bears that live off the coast of Alaska, it contributes to efforts to conserve polar bears in the other four range states of Norway, Greenland, Canada and Russia.

The polar bear was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008 due to the loss of its sea-ice habitat. The area of the Arctic covered by sea ice in October and November 2016 was the lowest on record for those months since recordkeeping began in 1979. The current global polar bear population is estimated to be 26,000. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at the current rates throughout the 21st century, polar bears will likely disappear from much of their present-day range.

The Service will continue to work with diverse partners to implement the CMP. The team will share information, identify priorities, leverage resources and adapt the plan according to new and emerging science and information.

Read the plan and learn more about the conservation work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners: https://www.fws.gov/alaska/fisheries/mmm/polarbear/pbmain.htm.

The Center for Biological Diversity said the plan falls short because it doesn’t call for the big cuts in greenhouse gases needed to save the species. According to the group, it’s so weak that it could allow for the  disappearance of Alaska’s two polar bear populations. The species, as so many others, was originally listed after the CBD petitioned the federal government for protection.

“Polar bears are starving and drowning as their sea ice melts away, but this toothless plan shrugs off the one solution that will save them — carbon pollution cuts,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Scientific studies show that only aggressive greenhouse gas reductions that keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius have a good chance of allowing bears to persist across their range, although in greatly reduced numbers in many regions. But the new plan’s core goals and recovery requirements do not call for making the science-based pollution cuts needed to recover polar bears.

The plan also allows for massive reductions in polar bear populations. Under the plan polar bears can be considered recovered even if the population drops by 85 percent from current levels. In practice this means that Alaska’s two polar bear populations could be extirpated and the species could still be declared recovered. The plan also fails to require reductions in other important threats to the polar bear: oil and gas drilling, increasing Arctic shipping, and contaminants.

A 2015 study found one of Alaska’s polar bear populations, in the southern Beaufort Sea, had declined by 40 percent over 10 years. The status of the other population, in the Chukchi Sea, remains “data deficient.”

A 2016 U.S. Geological Survey analysis shows both Alaska populations are likely to be in the highest risk category of “greatly decreased” as early as 2025 if greenhouse gases aren’t reduced. Another study published in December projected that polar bears are likely to decline by more than 30 percent over the next 35 years.

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