In 2009, the Obama administration moved to designate more than 187,000 square miles in the northern part of Alaska as protected polar bear habitat, which effectively stopped drilling for oil and gas in the area, believed to contain some of the richest reserves in the world. The designation of a critical habitat doesn’t automatically block development, but federal officials have to consider whether a proposed action would interfere with the recovery of a threatened population.
The state of Alaska and the petroleum industry both sued the government in 2011, calling the federal government’s designation of critical land for polar bear habitat “unprecedented” and “expansive,” and the issue is now before the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The lawsuit’s main claim was that the designation was expansive. Just how “expansive” was it? The total land area of California is a mere 163,696 square miles, so the designated polar bear protected habitat is bigger than California. In addition, the lawsuit challenged the scientific conclusions that led the federal government to designate the area as critical to the bears’ survival. Plaintiffs said the designation included areas that aren’t even in the polar bears’ range.
All parties acknowledge that the polar bears are endangered. Of the 19 subpopulations of polar bears in the world, three are declining in number, mostly due to the loss of sea ice secondary to climate change.
Some experts, however, say the world population of polar bears is increasing. The worldwide population in the 1970s was between 5,000 and 10,000, and today it’s in the neighborhood of 25,000. Even if the number were to decrease by 30 percent by 2053, as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) predicted, the population would still be ahead of where it was in the 1970s.
The population increase over the past four decades is mostly due to a treaty the US signed known as the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears. Also signing the treaty were Canada, Denmark (for Greenland), Norway, and Russia. It was the first time those five nations had come together on a shared wildlife conservation issue, and the agreement is still one of the strongest multilateral environmental agreements ever signed.
Other groups give higher estimates for loss, though, including a 2007 study by the US government. It’s fair to say that the polar bear doesn’t have a path to extinction that’s ablaze with certainty, but just about all scientists say the bears are in trouble and will suffer a population decline—maybe not a catastrophic one, though—due to the potential loss of sea ice.
“The best estimates we’ve got indicate that we’ll probably lose somewhere around two-thirds of the world’s bears somewhere around mid-century, just based on the simple fact that we’re losing sea ice,” the BBC quoted Andrew Derocher, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta and past chair of the IUCN’s Polar Bear Specialist Group, as saying.
Polar bears have been considered threatened by the US government since 2008, when the species was first listed on the Endangered Species list.
The bottom line: If there’s no sea ice, there will be no seals for the bears to eat, and soon there will be no bears—unless they find another food source, which has happened in their evolutionary past. They could wander inland to feed on berries, eggs, etc., and they have been known to interbreed with grizzlies to propagate their species. Some people in the scientific community still aren’t sure that would be enough, so in the meantime, it’s incumbent upon us to reduce climate change wherever we can. The effects of climate change have an impact on the polar bears and on many other species, including humans.