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The FWS Can Say Climate Change Threatens Polar Bears, but the Agency Can’t Do Much About It

Climate change may threaten America’s plants and animals, but the Endangered Species Act can’t require anybody to reduce their fossil fuel emissions.

By Francie Diep


(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

More than eight years after declaring polar bears a “threatened” species, the Fish and Wildlife Service has published a plan for protecting the Arctic’s top predator. But even as the plan concludes that polar bears’ biggest enemy is climate change, it focuses on everything else the Fish and Wildlife Service can do besides stopping global warming.

It’s a contradiction that underscores the limits of the Endangered Species Act. Even though climate change is becoming an ever-more important danger to America’s plants and animals, greenhouse-gas emissions policy isn’t under the Fish and Wildlife Service’s purview. As a result, the agency suggests actions such as developing better ways to detect and avoid polar-bear dens, securing trash so people don’t need to kill bears that come to scavenge garbage, and better monitoring of subpopulations of bears so scientists will know when their numbers fall below a critical threshold.

The problems these solutions “fix” — people disturbing dens, people killing bears that come into their towns — “are not currently threats to polar bear subpopulations, [but] may become threats in the future,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The service first listed polar bears under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, marking the first time a plant or animal had been placed under the protection of the act as a result of global warming. Polar bears’ primary threat is retreating Arctic ice, as the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in its listing decision (and reiterated in its new conservation management plan). The melting ice, in turn, is a consequence of climate change.

But even as then-Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced the listing in ’08, he added:

While the legal standards under the ESA compel me to list the polar bear as threatened, I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting…. That is why I am taking administrative and regulatory action to make certain the ESA isn’t abused to make global-warming policies.

In other words, as Zac Unger wrote in Pacific Standardin 2012, Kempthorne “stated that polar bears needed protection … and then ruled out any action that might actually accomplish that.”

The upcoming Donald Trump administration, which is stocked with cabinet picks who don’t believe in climate change, seems unlikely to change the situation.

What will happen to the big white bears without a slowdown to climate change? Most of the bears’ problems won’t be immediate. Despite flashy headlines suggesting otherwise, worldwide, polar bear numbers aren’t yet in steep decline. The worry is that, as global warming shrinks Arctic ice in the future, the bears won’t be able to adapt fast enough because they’re so dependent on the ice for hunting and raising cubs. As a result, their populations will plummet.

Meanwhile, polar bear populations in specific regions are already suffering. In the United States’ two polar-bear habitats, the southern Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea, bear numbers in the former are thought to be only half what they were in 1986, and scientists don’t have good counts for the latter.