Wolf Song of Alaska News

Imagine a World Without Polar Bears

Compass / Deborah L. Williams / Anchorage Daily News / April 24, 2007

Polar bears deserve our robust stewardship for the benefit of current and future generations of Alaskans.

Recognized as the largest four-legged carnivores in the world, polar bears are symbolic of our state's strong, extraordinary northern spirit and natural heritage. Found in only one place in our nation -- Alaska -- polar bears are now threatened and deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Unfortunately, because of confusion about the status of polar bears as well as the Endangered Species Act, some elected officials are opposing the listing. This opposition is not in Alaska's or the polar bear's best interest.

Polar bears rely on ice and snow for their very existence. As the proposed rule states, "polar bears are believed to be completely dependent upon Arctic sea ice for survival."

Because of decreasing sea ice, numerous scientific studies confirm that Alaska polar bears are experiencing drownings, dislocation from sea ice, cannibalism of females, starvation, smaller cub and male adult skull size, and higher cub mortality.

Our southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population is now estimated at only 1,526. This is down from two previous estimates, using different methodologies, of 1,800 (in 1986) and 2,500 (in the late 1990s).

In 2005, the World Conservation Union, Polar Bear Specialist Group, concluded that five populations of polar bears are declining: southern Beaufort Sea, Western Hudson Bay, Norwegian Bay, Kane Basin and Baffin Bay. Andrew Derocher, former head of the Polar Bear Specialist Group, stated, "Without stabilizing the climate by taking serious and urgent action on climate change, I don't see a future for polar bears at all."

In February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a seminal report, which was endorsed by the United States and more than 110 other nations. The report concluded that warming of the planet is unequivocal and there is a 90 percent likelihood that this warming has been caused by anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases.

With respect to Arctic sea ice, the climate change panel report stated: "Satellite data since 1978 show that annual average Arctic sea ice extent has shrunk by 2.7 (2.1 to 3.3) percent per decade with larger decreases in summer of 7.4 (5.0 to 9.9) percent per decade." In simpler terms, we have lost two Texases worth of polar bear habitat since 1979.

There is both bad news and very good news regarding sea ice. A recent study concluded that the Arctic Ocean could be devoid of ice by 2040 if emissions of greenhouse gases increase. Fortunately, the models demonstrate that "if we fix the greenhouse gas and aerosol levels at year 2000 values and run the model into the 21st century, the sea ice retreats for only another decade or two and then levels off."

We can and must take action to save sea ice and polar bears.

The Endangered Species Act is one of America's most important and successful environmental laws. Overall, scientists estimate that 227 species would have become extinct were it not for the Endangered Species Act.

Just as important, the act is improving population numbers and moving imperiled species toward recovery; 93 percent of species have either increased in population size or remained stable since being placed on the endangered species list.

Alaska's imperiled species have benefited tremendously from the act. For example, the Arctic peregrine falcon, American peregrine falcon, Aleutian Canada goose and Northeast Pacific gray whale have fully recovered and been removed from the endangered species list.

Furthermore, as Professor Stephen Meyer at MIT has concluded, "The one and a half decades of state data examined in this paper strongly contradict the assertion that the Endangered Species Act has had harmful effects on state economies. Protections offered to threatened animals and plants do not impose a measurable economic burden on development activity at the state level. In fact, the evidence points to the converse."

Should our grandchildren and great grandchildren be able to live in a world with Alaska polar bears? Unequivocally, yes. To achieve this, we need to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act now.

Deborah L. Williams is president of Alaska Conservation Solutions in Anchorage.

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