When the secretary of the interior proposed adding polar bears to the federal list of "threatened" species late last year, the reaction was thunderously positive. Editorial pages across the country, including The Post's, commended the administration for taking a step that acknowledges the impact of global warming. But the applause is premature.
The proposal to list the polar bear is just that, a proposal, and it will take years to have an impact. While I hope the Interior Department adds the polar bear to the list of endangered species, and fast, I am not holding my breath.
There is, however, something that can be done immediately to help protect polar bears: closing a loophole in domestic law so big that polar bear populations may not live long enough to experience the full brunt of global warming or the benefit of being listed as an endangered species.
That loophole? Sport hunting by Americans for polar bear trophies in Canada.
About three-quarters of the world's polar bears live in Canada. Unlike Norway and Russia, Canada allows sport hunting of polar bears. Over the past three years, for instance, more than a thousand polar bears were killed legally in the Inuit territory of Nunavut, Canada. American hunters were responsible for more than 200 dead bears.
Subsistence hunting is one thing. Sport-hunts by wealthy Americans who hope to nail a trophy over the fireplace mantel are quite another.
As a species, polar bears are important barometers of global environmental health. As the ice caps that comprise their habitat disappear, polar bears are among the first indicators of impending distress for other species, including our own.
Polar bears inside our borders are already well protected under a 1972 statute. The Marine Mammal Protection Act permits only subsistence hunting by Alaskan natives, and even that is regulated under a quota-setting treaty between the United States and Russia.
The immediate threat to polar bears is not addressed at all by the proposed endangered-species listing. While U.S. law cannot govern activities that take place in Canada, it can regulate what goods enter this country. That includes "trophies" such as polar bear heads or hides, which are prized by Americans who travel to Canada for sport hunts.
Originally, the marine mammal protection law banned the import and possession of all polar bear trophies. In 1994, the sport-hunting lobby pushed through an amendment that weakened this prohibition by allowing the importation of polar bear trophies from regions certified by Canada to contain healthy populations. This system worked for years, but now economics are trumping science again.
For sport hunters, a polar bear trophy is a prize, and the hunts are big business. American hunters often pay outfitters upwards of $25,000 to guide a polar bear hunt, even plunking down $2,000 just to get on a waiting list. But all it takes to get things started is $100 and an application.
According to the U.S. Safari Club, hunters spent $2.9 million in Nunavut in 2002. Since then, spending and hunting have increased dramatically. Two years ago the region's annual polar bear quota rose 30 percent, from 403 to 518. Since 1997, more than 800 permits have been issued to U.S. hunters, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Before the polar bear listing gets subsumed by the politics of global warming, let's do something for the bears that will have an immediate impact.