By JANE KAY
San Francisco Chronicle
February 09, 2006
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing climate-change studies and the status of the polar bear population and says it will decide within 12 months whether to offer protection under the Endangered Species Act to the furry white marine mammal.
If the polar bear is declared a threatened species, it would be the first mammal deemed in danger of extinction because of global warming. A listing could force the government to adopt curbs on carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas linked to rising temperatures in the atmosphere and ocean.
About 22,000 polar bears live in the Arctic Circle. The bears spend their lives on the vast floating sea ice where they sleep, mate and hunt for their prey, the ice seals.
But in the past few decades, the people of the Arctic and scientists have recorded changes in sea ice as annual average temperatures have increased by nearly twice the rate of the rest of the world.
The sea ice is breaking up earlier in the spring, and the ocean is freezing over later in the fall. With the thinning and cracking of the pack ice, the polar bears are forced to come to land and search for food, which they are usually unable to find.
Fish and Wildlife scientists from Anchorage, Alaska, have found that more bears in the Beaufort Sea have come ashore in September as the distance between sea ice and land has increased, based on the first five years of an ongoing study. In earlier Canadian studies on the polar bear population in the Hudson Bay, where sea ice is shrinking the fastest, bears weighed less and had fewer births, and their young had a lower survival rate.
Scientists from the federal Minerals Management Service concluded that some bears were drowning in the long swim from ice to land. They saw four drowned bears floating in open water in 2004, apparently exhausted while trying to swim 125 to 185 miles between ice and land in high winds.
Last year, several scientific institutions reported that summer sea ice has declined by 15 to 20 percent during the past 30 years, an area roughly equivalent to Texas and Arizona. Based on data collected by satellites and ships, they concluded that the ice is probably on an accelerating long-term decline.
Rosa Meehan, Fish and Wildlife's chief of marine mammal protection in Alaska, said the agency hasn't decided whether to list the species. But there is a great deal of information available regarding climate change and polar bears, she said.
"It's an appropriate time" to look at the information critically and "make a reasonable assessment of how the ice patterns are changing and how that relates to the life functions of the bear," Meehan said.
Climate experts say that in roughly 50 years, there won't be any sea ice in the summer, Meehan said. "But what is it going to look like throughout the year, and how will the seasonal ice patterns change?"
Three environmental groups - Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council - filed a lawsuit in December, charging that the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to rule on their petition asking the agency to start the review.
In deciding to review, agency officials ruled that the petition presented substantial scientific information indicating that listing the polar bear may be warranted.
For 60 days, the agency will take comments on effects of climate and sea ice change as well as on the effects of oil and gas development, hunting, poaching and contaminants on the bears.
"Our petition to list the polar bear as a threatened species is based on the overwhelming evidence that global warming threatens the bear with extinction," said attorney Andrew Wetzler, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's endangered species project.
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