December 27, 2006
Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne today announced the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list the polar bear as a
threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and initiating
a comprehensive scientific review to assess the current status and
future of the species.
The Service will use the next 12 months to gather more
information, undertake additional analyses, and assess the
reliability of relevant scientific models before making a final
decision whether to list the species.
"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 bears' habitat
may literally be melting."
"Based on current analysis, there are concerns about the effect of
receding sea ice on polar bear populations," he said. "I am
directing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S.
Geological Survey to aggressively work with the public and the
scientific community over the next year to broaden our
understanding of what is happening with the species. This
information will be vital to the ultimate decision on whether the
species should be listed."
Polar bears are already protected under the Marine Mammal
Protection Act of 1972. Under that law, it is generally prohibited
to (1) take or (2) import marine mammals and their parts or
The species is also protected by international treaties involving
countries in the bear's range. In early December, Congress passed
the United States-Russia Polar Bear Conservation and Management
Act of 2006, implementing a treaty with Russia designed to
conserve polar bears shared between the two countries. President
Bush is expected to sign this legislation into law.
Today's proposal cites the threat to polar bear populations caused
by receding sea ice, which bears use as a platform to hunt for
prey. In recommending a proposed listing, the Fish and Wildlife
Service used scientific models that predict the impact of the loss
of ice on bear populations over the next few decades.
Scientific observations have revealed a decline in late summer
Arctic sea ice to the extent of 7.7 percent per decade and in the
perennial sea ice area of 9.8 percent per decade since 1978.
Observations have likewise shown a thinning of the Arctic sea ice
of 32 percent from the 1960s and 1970s to the 1990s in some local
There are 19 polar bear populations in the circumpolar Arctic,
containing an estimated total of 20,000-25,000 bears.
The western Hudson Bay population of polar bears in Canada has
suffered a 22 percent decline. Alaska populations have not
experienced a statistically significant decline, but Fish and
Wildlife Service biologists are concerned that they may face such
a decline in the future.
Recent scientific studies of adult polar bears in Canada and in
Alaska's Southern Beaufort Sea have shown weight loss and reduced
cub survival. While data are lacking about many populations, the
Service suspects that polar bears elsewhere are being similarly
affected by the reduction of sea ice
"We have sufficient scientific evidence of a threat to the species
to warrant proposing it for listing, but we still have a lot of
work to do to enhance our scientific models and analyses before
making a final decision," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Director Dale Hall.
The Service extensively analyzed the impact of both onshore and
offshore oil and gas development on polar bears and determined
they do not pose a threat to the species.
The Service likewise examined the impact of subsistence harvest of
polar bears by Alaska Natives. Such harvest is specifically
allowed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and would also be
allowed if the polar bear is listed under the Endangered Species
Act, unless the Service finds that the harvest is materially and
negatively affecting the polar bear.
Harvesting polar bears is of great social, cultural and economic
importance to Native peoples throughout much of the Arctic and
maintaining a harvest within sustainable limits is one of the
department's priorities, Kempthorne noted.
While the proposal to list the species as threatened cites the
threat of receding sea ice, it does not include a scientific
analysis of the causes of climate change. That analysis is beyond
the scope of the Endangered Species Act review process, which
focuses on information about the polar bear and its habitat
conditions, including reduced sea ice.
However, climate change science and issues of causation are
discussed in other analyses undertaken by the Bush Administration.
The administration treats climate change very seriously and
recognizes the role of greenhouse gases in climate change.
The Service invites the public to submit data, information, and
comments on the proposed rule. Comments will be accepted on the
proposed rule for the next 90 days.
A copy of the proposed rule and other information about the
proposal is available on the
Service's Marine Mammal website.
"Our goal ultimately is to combine the best science available with
the power of working hand-in-hand with states, tribes, foreign
countries, industry, and other partners to minimize the threats to
polar bears and conserve this great icon of the Arctic for future
generations," Kempthorne said.