“The only way at this time to save bears is to have people change their habits, and the way to do that is through zoos and aquariums,” he said. “Polar bears are just ambassadors for their friends in the Arctic.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service allows orphaned cubs from Alaska to be shipped to the lower 48 states for display, like it did with the Louisville Zoo last year. It let in a captive-bred polar bear from Australia in 2006 for Anchorage’s Alaska Zoo, but hasn’t let in any other polar bears since the late 1990s.
Four House Democrats led by Rep. William Lacy Clay (Mo.) — all representing zoos hoping to obtain polar bears — urged Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a Oct. 27 letter to issue permits for “live rescued polar bears” to be put on display. Eighteen U.S. zoos have either recently renovated polar bear exhibits or built new ones, are in the process of construction, or planning to do so in the future.
Robert Gabel, with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s International Affairs program, said the agency has advised zoo officials “it’s going to be difficult for us to authorize.”
“We’d have to show that an import would either stabilize or increase the wild population of polar bears. It’s difficult to show how an import would accomplish that,” he said, adding that while the law has an exemption for scientific research, “We’ve never allowed that breeding in and of itself is research.”
Dale Jamieson, a New York University professor of environmental studies and philosophy, noted that if you’re facing the prospect of taking an animal out of its natural environment for generations, “we might as well simply be storing genetic material in gene banks.” Zoos, he said “have a huge conflict of interest. This is how they make money.”
But Center for Biological Diversity senior counsel Brendan Cummings, who helped lead the legal fight to list polar bears, said federal officials need to realize they may have to pursue this course if the population closest to humans, in Canada’s southern Hudson Bay, begins to crash: “The most visible and unstable polar bear population in the planet will be in crisis mode caused by our action, greenhouse gas emissions, and there will be pressure to do something about it.”
Fish and Wildlife already has identified 187,000 square miles in Alaska as critical habitat for polar bears and is working on a plan to protect the species through such possible actions as limiting bear hunting and human activity along the coast in polar bear denning areas.
The agency’s Alaska spokesman, Larry Bell, said when it comes to captive breeding, “Right now, it’s not something we’re considering.”
Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund and Coca-Cola Co. have launched a campaign to preserve what they call the “Last Ice Area,” 500,000 square miles of polar bear habitat in northern Canada and Greenland, which is likely to remain frozen year-round the longest.
As Meyerson observed, all the genomic banking and artificial insemination techniques in the world have their limits. “This is all given that we have ice to return the animals to,” she said.