"Polar bears are one of nature's ultimate survivors, able to live and thrive in one of the world's harshest environments," said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne in a news release. "But we are concerned the polar bears' habitat may literally be melting." Kempthorne also said polar bears should be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The increasingly earlier summer melts of Arctic ice give polar bears less time to hunt for food and build up fat in their bodies, and studies have found that polar bears are experiencing weight loss, higher mortality rates for cubs, and are moving closer to human-inhabited areas in search of food. If the polar bears are placed on the Endangered Species Act, U.S. federal agencies will be required to do anything they can to protect the animals and their habitats. Environmental advocates hope that such a move would force the passing of legislation to limit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions thought to contribute to global warming.
While no word has come yet regarding the subject of a policy change on global warming by President Bush, environmentalists in the United States commended the review -- which is expected to take about a year -- and noted that Canadian politicians were now under pressure to perform a similar review.
"Unlike the United States, Canada is foot-dragging when it comes to protecting the polar bears that we have here," said Faisal Moola, director of science at the David Suzuki Foundation. "Polar bears are not just iconic to Canadians, they are an integral part to the ecosystem and the culture of Northern Canada. So we're looking forward to seeing Canada follow suit and shortly list the species under our own domestic endangered-species legislation."
There are roughly 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic region, about two-thirds of them in Canada, and the decision as to whether to list them under the federal Species at Risk Act is currently under consideration in Ottawa. So far, only the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has listed polar bears under its provincial endangered species act, but Moola was hopeful that Washington's move would force Ottawa to act in kind.
Dr. Peter Ewins, species conservation director for World Wildlife Fund Canada, said, "My suspicion would be that the U.S. decision to classify (polar bears) as a threatened species would be difficult to ignore in Canada."