Unfazed by new studies predicting the disappearance of polar bears from Alaska, Gov. Sarah Palin is repeating her opposition to listing the bears as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
There's still too much uncertainty about the future melting of the polar ice cap to justify such a listing, Palin told the federal government last week. And declaring any species "threatened" because of possible global warming effects would "open the floodgates" for petitions affecting thousands of other species, she said.
Palin said the polar bear has become "a metaphor in the highly charged climate change debate." Those petitioning for protection are using the bears to affect national policy on such distant issues as carbon emissions, which should be addressed in other ways, she said.
The Palin administration is skating on thin ice with such arguments, environmentalists say. The emphasis on uncertainty lines up the state against the preponderance of global scientific opinion, which foresees continued warming due significantly to human-caused emissions.
An array of new polar bear studies released by the U.S. Geological Survey in September buttressed the case for protection, predicting two-thirds of the world's polar bears -- and all of those in Alaska -- would be gone in 50 years because of the shrinking summer ice cap.
A decision by the Interior Department whether to list the polar bears as threatened is expected by January.
STATE SAYS ICE MAY GROW
The new federal studies were based on conservative, middle-of-the-road projections of sea ice loss, scientists and federal officials said. Their work was drawn from the latest report on global warming released this year by the increasingly confident Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In its response last week, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game conceded that middle-of-the-road forecasts were used. But the state calls that choice "selective" and the results "highly speculative." For such long-range forecasts, it would be more accurate to include all studies, including less-likely predictions that envision more ice, the state said.
"They predetermined their outcome in choosing the models they chose," said Doug Vincent-Lang, a special assistant with Fish and Game.
The state also challenged projections that look 45 years ahead as hazy.
"Given the uncertainty inherent in the models," the state said, "we do not think that a listing decision should be based on climate modeling extending more than 10 years into the future."
The state disputes the reports' certainty about how loss of sea ice, which the bears use for a hunting platform much of the year, will affect bear populations. The state argues there is a better chance that bears will adapt to hunting on land than they are given credit for.
A spokeswoman for the USGS declined to respond to the state's criticism, saying it would be inappropriate to say anything about comments submitted during the federal comment period, which closed Oct. 22.
More than 300,000 comments were received by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during a first 90-day comment period and a second 45-day period that followed release of the USGS studies, said USFWS marine mammal chief Rosa Meehan.
Environmental groups dismissed the state's claims.
"It's embarrassing," said Deborah Williams of Alaska Conservation Solutions in Anchorage. "This is the same kind of 'uncertainty' that existed with tobacco in the 1990s. It's manufactured uncertainty. It's not credible."
The Center for Biological Diversity, which wrote the original petition seeking protection for polar bears, said the sea ice projections might be, if anything, too cautious. In its comments, the center said last summer's sea ice receded farther than predicted in any of the 10 climate models used by USGS.
This year's shrinkage highlighted a new concern for walrus. Thousands of the marine mammals were seen hauled out on the northern shores of Alaska, where they would normally ride the ice pack off shore.
PALIN WANTS TO TEMPORIZE
The USGS studies predicted more polar bears would be seen on land as the ice melts, increasing contact with humans in the short term. But Steve Amstrup, the biological team leader, said studies have shown the bears are inefficient hunters on land and do not get the nutrition they need.
The state fears that a threatened-species listing could mean new rules that jeopardize subsistence hunting and existing conservation treaties. The state also fears restrictions on oil and gas operations in the Arctic.
"We share the goal of maintaining a healthy and well managed polar bear population, and recognize that climate change may eventually require more active management to preserve many species, including polar bears," Palin wrote in a cover letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne on Oct. 22. But a decision now would be premature, she said.
Petitions for thousands more species could follow, the governor said, which would "drain the Service's resources away from substantive research and conservation efforts."
Fish and Wildlife Service officials say it was made clear from the beginning that the Endangered Species Act is broad enough to protect species threatened by global causes such as greenhouse gases.
But Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall said Wednesday that developing a management plan to cover a global problem, should the polar bears end up being listed, would be a huge challenge.
"The Endangered Species Act was not built to deal with something like global warming," he said.
Find Tom Kizzia online at adn.com/contact/tkizzia or call him at 1-907-235-4244. Reporter Erika Bolstad contributed to this story.