Despite protests from Alaska, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that polar bears will keep their “threatened” status and continue to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Polar bears were listed under the ESA in 2008 as a result of a petition and legal action taken by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace. They were the first species added to the list solely because of the threat of climate change.
There are still an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left in the wild around the world, with two-thirds of the population in Canada, but they face a number of threats ranging from the loss of sea ice which they rely on for survival, to disease, pollution, shipping and hunting, among other issues.
“This ruling forces Alaska to acknowledge what has been painfully clear to everyone else: polar bears are on a collision course with climate change and deserve protection,” said Rebecca Riley, attorney in NRDC’s land and wildlife program. “Now, we need to get serious about tackling climate change and other threats to the species like hunting and toxic contamination.”
Their status has been controversial in Alaska, where they’re seen as impeding development, particularly when it comes to drilling for oil. The state, along with the international hunting group Safari Club International, argued that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) should have taken into account the fact that polar bears are doing well elsewhere in the world where steps are being taken to increase their numbers, according to the LA Times.
However, the court found that the USFWS’s decision to list them was scientifically supported, noting the record low in sea ice in 2007, which “further support[s] the concern that current sea ice models may be conservative and underestimate the rate and level of change expected in the future.”
Scientists believe that without protection, more than two-thirds of the planet’s polar bears, including all of the ones in Alaska, will likely be gone by 2050, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Today’s decision is the latest legal confirmation of the indisputable science on climate change and the very real threats that polar bears face,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “If we’re going to save polar bears, the Obama administration needs to move swiftly to cut greenhouse pollution.”
Polar bears may also get even more support as countries gather at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in the coming weeks, where the U.S., with support from the Russian Federation, is proposing a ban on the international trade in polar bear parts by uplisting them from Appendix II to Appendix I, which is currently the highest level of protection a species can get.
The legal trade in parts including paws, teeth and pelts results in the death of hundreds of polar bears annually. Canada, the only country that allows polar bear hunting and commercial trade, argues that populations are healthy and necessary for subsistence hunting, but troubling numbers gathered by the USFWS indicate that while some populations are stable or increasing, more than a dozen are either declining or haven’t been checked in decades.
The U.S. sponsored a proposal at the last meeting of CITES in 2010, but didn’t get enough votes to move forward.
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