Arctic Ice Melting, Polar Bears Endangered, Govt. Says

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - The Bush administration wants to add polar bears to the endangered species list as a result of the ice melting in the Arctic. Global warming is being blamed for harming the bears' habitat, but global warming skeptics are unconvinced.

"We are making this proposal because scientific review of the species by the Fish and Wildlife Service found that populations may be threatened by receding sea ice, which polar bears use as a platform for many activities essential to their life cycle, including hunting for their main prey, arctic seals," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said Wednesday.

"There is concern that their habitat may literally be melting," he said.

Speaking during a conference call briefing, Kempthorne said the current number of polar bears worldwide stands at 20,000-25,000.

Canada has recorded a decrease of 22 percent in the polar bear population over the past 20 years, and during the same period, the polar ice caps have receded by 22 percent, Kempthorne asserted.

About 60 percent of the world's polar bears live in Canada.

Although Kempthorne attributed receding ice caps to the melting caused by "global warming," he said the administration's proposal "does not include a scientific analysis of the causes of climate change."

"That analysis is beyond the scope of the Endangered Species Act review process, which focuses on information about the polar bear and its habitat and conditions including reduced sea ice," he said.

On the broader debate over global warming, Kempthorne said "the administration takes climate change very seriously and recognizes the role of greenhouse gases in climate change."

"Greenhouse gases" are carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants many scientists and green activists say are affecting the earth's climate.

Kempthorne said President Bush has dedicated more than $29 billion to climate science and research as part of a program to meet his goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent by 2012.

The proposal to add polar bears to the endangered species list will be subject to public comment for the next 90 days. A year-long review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will follow until a decision is made about whether to include the polar bear. The Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency responsible for protecting and conserving wildlife, fish, plants and their habitats.

Environmental groups hailed the proposal involving polar bears as a success.

"This is a victory for the polar bear and all wildlife threatened by global warming," Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement Wednesday.

"This is the beginning of a sea change in the way this country addresses global warming," Siegel added.

However, Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, disagreed, insisting that current warming levels are "not unusual."

"Most of the Arctic experts who have studied the Arctic have figured out ... [that] the current warming in the Arctic Ocean seems to be a change of ocean currents and wind patterns," Ebell told Cybercast News Service.

Those changes in currents and winds also appear to be cyclical, Ebell added. "Over decades, the currents and the wind patterns change. The evidence of this is that it was warmer in the 1930s in the Arctic than it is today."

Ebell also dismissed the view that receding sea ice was contributing to declining polar bear populations.

"Scientists who study polar bears are pretty divided as to whether their numbers are declining at all," he said.

"Even using the World Wildlife Fund's own analysis, if you broke it down to where the polar bear populations are declining, those areas are not warming up" in terms of the climate, Ebell said.

The areas where polar bear populations are declining are actually getting colder, he said, while in "the areas where the polar bear seems to be prospering, it seems to be warming up."

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, placing polar bears on the endangered species list "would not have any direct effect on the predicted reduction in sea ice habitat."

Listing the bears would, however, require the initiation of a recovery planning process, in which government agencies and other parties including private entities cooperated to "identify practical and feasible measures to provide for conservation of the species."

Such an action would also require federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about "any actions which might affect polar bears within the United States," the Department of the Interior stated.

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