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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Polar Bear Politics

Air Date: Week of

An environmental group says polar bears belong on the endangered species list because global warming is melting their habitat. Conservatives in Congress say the enviros are turning the polar bear into a political poster child. Jeff Young reports from Washington.


CURWOOD: The polar bear could go extinct as global warming melts away the icy habitat of the giant white predator. That's according to the Center for Biodiversity which is seeking federal protection for this icon of the arctic under the Endangered Species Act. But critics in Congress accuse the group of playing politics with the polar bear. Living on Earth's Jeff Young has our story.

YOUNG: Most scientists expect global warming to make the planet a little thinner on top as polar ice melts over the coming century. And they say that would be bad news for polar bears.

DEROCHER : What we're seeing is a shortening of the period of time that the bears are on the sea ice and this is where polar bears make their living.

YOUNG: Biologist Andrew Derocher at the University of Alberta has studied polar bears for more than 20 years. These days, he's seeing declines in animal condition, reproductive success and numbers in the best known bear population near Hudson Bay.

DEROCHER : As you decrease the amount of sea ice that's available you decrease the amount of seals that are produced in a given area , as well. So, as you decrease polar bears' habitat you're going to see a reduction in the number of polar bears.

YOUNG: The California-based environmental group, Center for Biological Diversity, is using that argument to petition the US government to list the polar bear as a threatened species. The Center's Kieran Suckling says even though extinction could be a century away, the time to act is now.

SUCKLING : And what we're trying to do here is to get in front of the extinction curve. And say, look, the polar bear is fairly healthy today, we can see extinction coming on the horizon, so there is time to fix this problem.

YOUNG: But some in Congress say the group's petition has more to do with politics than polar bears.

KENNEDY: The Center for Biological Diversity is using the law here for political, if not fundraising, goals and not a real interest in recovering endangered species.

YOUNG: That's Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a Republican from California who wants to rewrite parts of the Endangered Species Act. Kennedy says the Center simply wants a mascot for its fights against global warming and arctic oil drilling.

KENNEDY: I think that's very much what's going on here is to use a very attractive animal that we all love and enjoy and can pull on heartstrings and purse strings of America to gain attention and political goals for a group that is opposed to energy production up there.

YOUNG: There's no doubt the polar bear is a potent image. Remember this television ad with animated bears cracking open bottles of Coke?


YOUNG: And environmentalists are already banking on the bear's appeal to help sell their ideas.

PROTESTORS: No spill, no spill, save the Arctic now! No drill, no spill, save the Arctic now! No drill, no drill...

YOUNG: At this Capitol Hill rally, an activist in a polar bear costume got a bear hug from Connecticut's Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman.

LIEBERMAN: And if I even love a person in a polar bear outfit. (laughter) well, you know, let's protect those polar bears, those real ones that are there.

YOUNG: Lieberman is a cosponsor of a bill calling for limits on greenhouse gas emissions. He called the polar bear petition a wake up call for action on global warming. The Center for Biological Diversity's Suckling says he's glad to have the polar bear as a poster child.

SUCKLING: There's nothing wrong with that and anything that helps people emotionally connect with the environment and feel like we need to take action is a good thing in my book.

YOUNG: Suckling doesn't expect the administration to add the bear to the threatened list, at least not without a fight.

SUCKLING: We're gonna have a court battle over whether or not the best science says that global warming is happening and that it's threatening wildlife and we look forward to that because one of the problems the conservation movement has faced over the past few decades is this constant denial of global warming.

YOUNG: Polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher stops short of calling the bears threatened because the changes in climate are too tough to predict. But he says the Center's petition will start a helpful discussion.

DEROCHER: I think there is scientific merit in the context that we really have to closely examine the issue and the status of polar bears, not just in the immediate future but in the longer term future. I'd rather be wrong about climate change than be right about it. If the actual changes from climate change come to pass, I think it's going to be a very, very sad situation. And if humanity doesn't respond to it in a timely manner I think we will be very harshly judged by future generations on that point.

YOUNG: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ninety days to make its initial response to the Center's petition. Then the real debate will begin about whether the polar bear is on thin ice.

For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.

[MUSIC: Russian National Orchestra: Serge Prokofiev "Peter and the Wolf": Peter & the Wolf; Jean Paul Beintus: Wolf Tracks]



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