PUBLISHED: 4:20 PM on Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Polar bear politics
The polar bear is likely content in a world not any larger than the ice it lives on and the seals it hunts, but the world is not content to leave the animal there.

Considered a cute poster-bear for global warming, annoying obstacle to oil development and valuable animal worth being protected, the polar bear is caught in a legal tug of war to decide its importance and ultimately its fate.

In the midst of the confusion, the state government of Alaska has made its intention to challenge the polar bear's recently acquired "threatened" listing very clear, though not necessarily its reasons for doing so.

Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced in May that the polar bear would be granted a "threatened" designation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a listing milder than "endangered" but meant to protect "any species that is likely to become an endangered species in the foreseeable future." The Secretary named the loss of sea ice, where the bears spend most of their time, due to warming as the reason for his decision.

This has brought serious attention to the polar bear and even parts of the country and the world that will never see a polar bear outside a zoo or a Coca-Cola commercial are now debating the animal's future and what it means in the continuing fight over global warming.

The state of Alaska opposed the listing of the polar bear almost from the beginning. In a string of press releases dating back to early 2007, Gov. Sarah Palin's office objected to the "unsubstantiated assumptions" of the Fish and Wildlife Service's recommendation, the "widespread social and economic impacts" of listing the bear and the "highly speculative and questionable" link between polar bears and global warming over the next 50 years.

The objections of state officials were maintained when Palin announced the state's intention to sue the federal government over the listing decision rather than admit defeat. A main contention was the current situation of Alaska's polar bear populations is good enough.

"I guess we feel that this species is relatively well managed and in relatively good numbers," said Doug Vincent-Lang of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, mainly referring to rebounds in polar bear populations after the passage of hunting bans in the 1970s. One estimate shows worldwide bear numbers population increasing as much as five times since that time.

He said the importance of climate change for the bear should not be overestimated because of the polar bear's adaptability and the uncertainty of scientific projections.

Long-term climate projections are important to any discussion of polar bears because of the impact warming has on the Arctic sea ice where the bears hunt, mate, and spend a large portion of their year. Warmer temperatures mean less ice and a more complicated life for the bear.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) was asked to project the impact of changing sea ice on polar bear populations in the next 40 to 50 years. The results of ten different climate projections led researchers to the conclusion that two thirds of the world's estimated 25,000 polar bears will be lost by mid-century.

The governor's office said it does not think the Secretary's decision to list the polar bear was based on the "best scientific and commercial data available," to borrow the language of the ESA. This is state officials' most oft-repeated objection to the listing of the polar bear.

The economic impact of this decision is another popular objection, but it does not constitute a legal challenge and is not part of the formal challenge to the polar bear listing.

Vincent-Lang said climate estimates looking 40 to 50 years into the future are not a reliable basis for decision-making. He said polar bears are not likely to become endangered "in the foreseeable future" because the future is not foreseeable.

Climate models begin to break down after only about 10 to 15 years, Vincent-Lang said, and at the range the USGS was asked to project their simulations are even less reliable.

He brought up the state government's faith that polar bears will adapt and survive melting sea ice and fluctuating populations.

"Bears over the last 50 to100 years have probably gone through various periods of warming and cooling in the Arctic environment," Vincent-Lang said.

Bears could potentially relocate away from melting ice, adopt new diets and learn to live in the new, melting world, he said.

Steven Amstrup, senior polar bear researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, said, in a sense, climate projections actually grow more certain the farther into the future they are made. He used the analogy of a descending airplane, where the eventual destination is the ground, though weather and other conditions may affect where and when the plane actually lands.

Climate models work in a similar way, said Amstrup, who worked on the projections that informed the federal government's listing decision. They don't offer much certainty about temperatures or sea ice levels 10 or 15 years from now because many factors affect climate and cause more or less ice from year to year.

There is much more certainty there will be less sea ice than now in 50 years and still less in 100 years. Existing conditions are like flaps on an airplane, he said. They are set, and the outcome, a successful landing or warmer climate, is only a matter of time.

"The laws of physics require that more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere require a warmer climate," Amstrup said, simply.

Amstrup said he was unfamiliar with the state's view that climate models begin to be much more unreliable after 15 years.

"I've never heard that statement and there's nothing that suggests less certainty at 10 to 15 years than 40 to 50," Amstrup said.

As to the adaptability of the bear, Amstrup said some small number of polar bears could adapt to life on land in areas where sea ice is absent for most of the year, but there are no known examples of this happening. He also said the bear's population and range would fall drastically in this case.

The comments of Alaska's state government on the validity of climate models and global warming trends are willfully blind, said Andrew Wetzler, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Wetzler said the state's position depended on one or two mostly unpublished scientific papers, and the greatest weight of scientific evidence is on the side of warming, leading to melting ice and fewer polar bears.

Kassie Siegel, of the Center for Biological Diversity, called the state's claims "demonstrably incorrect" and "kind of jaw-dropping."

"That is reality and the state of Alaska is in denial as to this fact," said Siegel, who worked on the initial petition to list the polar bear in 2005. "And Alaskans deserve better."

The Endangered Species Act is better equipped than the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which gave the bear most of its legal protections before the current listing, to identify and address all threats to the species, she said.

"Protections under the ESA are stronger and broader," she said.

One of these protections is the required naming of critical habitat, land area vital to a species' survival that may be federally regulated to protect it.

Vincent-Lang said this poses a problem in the case of the polar bear, whose in-danger habitat is shifting sea ice, not a section of land or ocean.

"How would you define critical habitat?" he said. "Is it sea ice; what do you do with sea ice?"

Critical habitat may also pose a problem for the state of Alaska. Already, without any habitat defined for the polar bear, federal permits in areas where polar bears live are open to litigation, according to Vincent-Lang. This includes the Chukchi Sea, 29.7 million acres north of the Arctic Circle between the United States and Russia, which the federal government leased in February to a group of oil companies for $2.6 billion, according to the Associated Press. All federal actions in the area would be subject to regulation if it was listed as critical habitat.

Mineral Management Services spokeswoman Robin Cacy told the Anchorage Daily News in January the 46,000 square miles of outer continental shelf in the Chukchi Sea contains an estimated 15 billion barrels of conventionally recoverable oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, over $1.8 trillion in oil at current prices.

Development in the Chukchi Sea area, which is home to about 2,000 of the world's 25,000 polar bears, has already encountered opposition, as the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups have announced intentions to sue over a recent decision to permit oil developers to "annoy" and potentially harm small numbers of polar bears.

Since 1960, Fish and Wildlife Services has reported the deaths of only two polar bears during oil and gas exploration.

The question of motivation, especially for the governor's office and other state officials, remains. It may be the state is in pursuit of scientific truth, and against unnecessary bureaucracy surrounding the polar bear.

According to Vincent-Lang, the state is not against the polar bear and is suing in order to question the validity of long-range climate projections.

"The state has been painted here as not caring much about polar bears," said Vincent-Lang. "That's not true."

Perhaps this lawsuit is, as Wetzler said, possibly a political game, meant to curry favor with special interest groups.

No matter what else is clear, there are clearly interests beyond the obvious, layers behind layers that force the polar bear to be, at least in the minds of those people that can affect it, something other than the animal it is.