As the Arctic warms faster than any other place on the planet and sea ice declines, there is only one sure way to save polar bears from extinction, the government announced Monday: decisive action on climate change.
In a final plan to save an animal that greatly depends on ice to catch prey and survive, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the rapid decline of sea ice as “the primary threat to polar bears” and said “the single most important achievement for polar bear conservation is decisive action to address Arctic warming” driven by the human emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“Short of action that effectively addresses the primary cause of diminishing sea ice,” the agency’s plan said, “it is unlikely that polar bears will be recovered.”
That determination puts the plan itself on thin ice. Global climate change, of course, is completely out of the control of Fish and Wildlife, a division of the Interior Department. An international effort to address the issue was signed about a year ago in Paris, but President-elect Donald Trump has questioned U.S. participation in a treaty that nearly 190 governments signed.
Trump has waffled in his perspective on climate change. When asked about the human link to climate change following his election, he said, “I think there is some connectivity. . . . It depends on how much.” He also said he would keep an open mind about the international climate accord and whether his administration will withdraw from it.
But the president-elect has also openly doubted the findings of more than 95 percent of climate scientists who say climate change is driven by human activity. In 2012, he tweeted that “the concept of global warming was created for and by the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
Fish and Wildlife officials declined to speculate on whether the next president will follow the guidance of its new plan. But the scientists had doubts about the survival of bears before Trump’s election.
“Even when we started the planning process, that was the discussion we were having … are we wasting our time here,” said Jenifer Kohout, deputy assistant director for Fish and Wildlife’s Alaska region, and a co-chair of the group that wrote the plan.
“We wanted this plan to partially tell that story,” she said, but to also show that there were other steps that could save bears, such as adjusting the number that can be harvested by Alaska’s native people depending on the rise and fall of the animal’s population. Indigenous people and state officials participated in forming the plan. Another step was to find ways to deter hungry bears drawn to human garbage, so that fewer of them are destroyed.
Polar bears were listed as threatened by Fish and Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, which automatically qualified it as a depleted species under the Marine Mammals Protection Act. Under both acts, Fish and Wildlife is required to develop a plan for their recovery with an analysis of why their threatened, the cost of restoring their populations and the time it will take to do it.
For eight years, federal scientists have tried to figure that all out. Monday’s recovery plan reflects earlier science that foresaw the extinction of polar bears in a warming world. Fish and Wildlife took the further step of establishing a Polar Bear Recovery Team of representatives from federal agencies, Alaska, the North Slope Borough, Alaska Native organizations, industry, non-profit organizations and the Canadian Wildlife Service.
Together they are showing Alaskans how starving polar bears are attracted to their garbage, which brings them closer to humans, which leads to their slaughter, hastening their decline. With Native organizations that rely on bear meat for nutrition, they came up with a system where the numbers of bears that can be hunted rises and falls depending on the population.
For many observers, the concern about polar bears is odd because more of the animals exist now than 40 years ago, when protections against hunting were minimal. Scientists say about 19 populations make up an estimated 25,000 to 31,000 bears, including a subpopulation of about 3,000 that roam Alaska. Estimates of their increases and declines go up and down depending on which population is being counted.
But researchers say 80 percent of the populations will almost certainly collapse if sea ice continues to decline. Air temperatures at the top of the world are rising twice as fast as temperatures in lower latitudes, resulting in significant ice melt, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Under the effects of global warming, Alaska recorded temperatures nearly 20 degrees higher than the January average as warm air flowed north, NOAA said in an Arctic Report Card.
“We’re quite confident that absent action to address climate change, there would be very significant reduction in the range of polar bears,” said Michael Runge, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist who served as the plan’s other co-chairman.
But even if the vast majority of bears die, the species can be saved if the ice stabilizes decades into the future, so that they can hunt, find mates and find dens that allow them to survive, Runge said. Polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, could be delisted if an improved climate and stronger ice increase their likelihood of survival.
The plan said the outlook is grim for bears only if international governments do absolutely nothing to address climate change, said David Douglas, another USGS researcher. But if they limit some greenhouse gases, even if Trump withdraws the United States from the Paris climate agreement, polar bears will have a slightly better chance of survival.
“There are two ends of a spectrum. One is not hopeless,” he said.
Without an aggressive call to address climate change, the plan is toothless, said Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity. Allowing for massive reductions in polar populations, including the possible extinction of bears in Alaska, Wolf said, is unacceptable.
“This recovery plan is too risky for the polar bear. Recovery plans work, but only if they truly address the threats to the species,” she said. “Sadly, that simply isn’t the case with this polar bear plan.”