By Beth Daley, Globe Staff
Once a symbol of Arctic wildlife’s fierce resilience, the polar bear is now so vulnerable to the ravages of global warming that the federal government placed the creature on the endangered species list today.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the bears’ habitat was literally melting below their feet. Bears depend almost exclusively on sea ice to hunt for ringed seals and other prey. Yet Arctic ice coverage fell to record low levels last year and scientists predict it could decline another 30 percent by the middle of the century, he said.
"Because polar bears are vulnerable to this loss of habitat, they are, in my judgment, likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future -- in this case 45 years," Kempthorne said at a news conference in Washington.
The designation is the first time an animal has been placed on the endangered species list primarily because of global warming. The placement requires the government to protect polar bears in this country and take steps to help the species recover. Still, Kempthorne made it clear that the Bush administration did not believe protection would come at the expense of oil and gas drilling in Alaska and said his decision included provisions to ensure that it wouldn’t be used as a tool to regulate greenhouse gases.
Environmental groups, which had successfully sued to force the government to release the overdue decision, said they would fight to ensure the designation gives them exactly that power, even though it was peppered with caveats and loopholes. They hope to halt oil and gas drilling if it harms polar bears and push the Bush administration to start regulating heat-trapping emissions from power plants, cars and factories, which they say are clearly hurting the bears.
"This is a profound acknowledgement of the threat not only to polar bears but to the entire Arctic ecosystem," said Andrew Wetzler, director of the endangered species project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It is going to provide important protection for polar bear populations."
The polar bear has rebounded from a worldwide population of 12,000 in the late 1960s to about 20,000-25,000 today. Two-thirds of the bears live in Canada, and several thousand are in Alaska.