Polar Bears Kept on Threatened Species List, Making Them Even More Threatened

polar bear in grass photo

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

A judge has ruled that polar bears are to be kept on the threatened list, rather than bumped up to the endangered list where they would receive more protections. But there's more to saving polar bears -- and all arctic species -- than just moving them around on a series of lists. The New York Times reports, "U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan of the District of Columbia issued a 116-page opinion (pdf) explaining why he granted the federal government's motion for summary judgment. Hanging over the matter is the issue of global warming and its potential effect on the polar bear's habitat. Environmentalists argue that greenhouse gases are to blame and that the ESA could be used to help regulate emissions, an approach the Obama administration opposes. Sullivan has yet to rule on that question, which is in many ways the key issue in the case."

Joe Romm of Think Progress states the problem well, "Department of Interior suffers from a rare form of bipolar disorder called bye-polar disorder." He notes that when the Bush Administration made the ruling to put the polar bear on the threatened species list, the DOI was aware that polar bears need sea ice for feeding and that the sea ice pack is disappearing due to human-caused emissions, but then DOI Secretary Kempthorne wanted to continue energy production in Alaska. Contradictory? Yes.

National Geographic magazine had an article in a recent issue that claimed there is still hope for the polar bear. Considering the hope hinges on our ending excess climate emissions and not only slowing, but reversing the warming trend we've currently set in motion, it seems only obvious that the polar bear is an endangered species with very, very little chance of survival.

polar bear photo

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

So why keep it on the threatened species list, and not list it as endangered? It seems that would be because following through with protections for the bear as an endangered species would require a significant push for not only preserving the habitat on which it depends, but also taking a hard, honest look at our emissions and making changes. It's not a matter of protecting this species from poachers -- it's a matter of protecting it from the average human.

Think Progress writes, "The climate models have left people with the impression that summer Arctic sea ice will survive past 2050, but reality is already worse than the IPCC's worst-case scenario... Whether the Arctic goes virtually ice-free by 2019 -- or whether it takes another decade -- the outcome is now all but inescapable."

And, as the article points out, Judge Sullivan, who made the ruling not to move polar bears to endangered status, states: "Certainly, where global warming has been identified as the primary threat to the polar bear's sea ice habitat and the agency has acknowledged that the global warming trend is unlikely to reverse itself, a conclusion that the species is ... 'in danger of extinction' has undeniable appeal."

It seems to be another case of humans seeing where we're heading, and deciding to do nothing at all to change course. For the polar bears, this is a death sentence.

Follow Jaymi on Twitter for more stories like this
More on Polar Bears
Melting Ice Increasing the Chance of Polar Bear-Human Meet-Ups
Polar Bear Spy Cam Eaten By ... a Polar Bear! Plus Mother & Cub Cuteness (Video)
Complexity of Polar Bears Revealed in 10 Rare Videos (Slideshow)
Polar Bear Observed to Swim Continuously for 9 Days Over 426 Miles

Related Content on Treehugger.com