Dear EarthTalk: How have polar bear populations in the Arctic been faring since the U.S. put them on its endangered species list in 2008, and what efforts are underway to protect them? — Melissa Underhill, Bangor, ME
Biologists estimate that as many as 25,000 polar bears roam the far north these days, with two-thirds of them in Canada and most of the remainder in Alaska and northern Russia. Environmentalists cheered in May 2008 when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because of forecast evidence that circumpolar warming is melting sea ice, the great white carnivore’s primary habitat. This listing represented the first time that climate change effects were officially considered as a cause for a species’ decline, emboldening activists to start calling for stricter regulations on carbon emissions nationwide.
Polar bears have been “protected” in the U.S. since 2008, but only recently has the USFWS released a species management plan. The Draft Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan (CMP) outlines six strategies to manage bear populations, including: limiting global atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases to levels suitable for supporting polar bear recovery and conservation, supporting international protection efforts, managing human-polar bear conflicts, collaboratively managing polar bear hunting by Alaska natives, protecting polar bear denning habitats and minimizing risk of contamination from oil spills.
While saving polar bears is not the only reason to curb greenhouse gases, the CMP prioritizes that public officials start factoring in the “consequences to polar bears and their habitats of the likely effects of the current baseline greenhouse gases scenario” and “prompt the needed actions to maintain and, as needed, restore sea ice habitat by implementing sufficient regulatory, market-driven, or voluntary actions.”
As for supporting international efforts, the USFWS is aligning with Russia to protect denning habitats in Chukotka and on Wrangel Island, where almost all denning for the Chukchi Sea population occurs, and with Canada to support polar bear management efforts in the Canadian Archipelago.
To manage human-polar bear conflicts, FWS is joining communities and industry to develop safety procedures for bear encounters and establish best practices for garbage management and bear-proof food-storage options to reduce food attractants that draw polar bears into human communities. The agency has also committed to expand the scope and improve the effectiveness of community polar bear patrols.
Polar bears are hunted in 15 Alaskan villages for meat or handicrafts like mittens and mukluks, and the USFWS plans to collaborate with the North Slope Borough, the Alaska Nanuuq Commission and others on implementing sustainable hunt management strategies in these villages. The USFWS is also working to minimize development and disturbance on barrier islands, which provide crucial bear habitat.
To reduce the risk of contamination from an oil spill, the USFWS will continue to provide feedback on oil exploration plans and ensure that responders and companies have current information on seasonal bear movements and important habitat areas. Standard operating procedures are in the works for the rescue and handling of oiled bears. The USFWS estimates that implementing the CMP over the next five years will cost almost $13 million. Comments on the plan will be accepted via the Federal eRulemaking Portal (search Docket No. FWS-R7-ES-2014-0060) through August 20, 2015.
CONTACTS: FWS Polar Bear Draft Conservation Management Plan, www.fws.gov/alaska/PDFs/PBRT%20Recovery%20Plan%20Book.pdf; Environment Canada’s Conservation of Polar Bears in Canada, www.ec.gc.ca/nature/default.asp?lang=En&n=A997D1CC-1; Federal eRulemaking Portal, www.regulations.gov.
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