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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Polar Bears Listed as Threatened, but Still on Thin Ice

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced yesterday that the polar bear would be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, ending months of speculation over the fate of this proposed listing. But the fate of the polar bear remains uncertain, as we don’t know whether the threatened status will have any impact on oil and gas drilling in the polar bear’s habitat, or what federal policies and action plans will be undertaken to help these beleaguered creatures recover.

13We do know that the polar bear is the first species to be granted protection under the Endangered Species Act due to the effects of global warming, and this potential lifeline can’t come soon enough. Their habitat is shrinking and ice floes are vanishing. Scientists report that the bears’ body weights are declining and they are having trouble hunting for food. Anyone who saw the “Planet Earth” series on BBC or Discovery Channel, and watched a starving polar bear curl up to die because he couldn’t kill a walrus, knows exactly what these animals are facing.

One benefit for polar bears which will take place immediately, however, is that wealthy American trophy hunters will no longer be allowed to import sport-hunted polar bear trophies from Canada. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 originally barred such imports—just as it still prohibits the import of parts from whales, dolphins, seals, and other marine mammals. But in 1994, trophy hunting groups led by Safari Club International punched a loophole through the law, opening the American border to more than 800 heads and hides of polar bears that have been imported since that time.

The United States does not allow sport hunting of polar bears in Alaska, so trophy hunters skirt the spirit of American conservation law by killing polar bears abroad. The Safari Club International gives out a “Bears of the World” hunting achievement award to individuals who shoot four of the eight species of bears in the world, and that awards program drives competitive killing of polar bears. Most of the trophy hunters who chase these animals in the Arctic in a head-hunting exercise are Americans, because they know they can bring the spoils of the hunt home with them for the purposes of self-aggrandizement and bragging rights.

Congress has been working to restore the longstanding ban on polar bear imports, and The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund have aggressively fought for passage of the Polar Bear Protection Act, H.R. 2327 and S. 1406, introduced by Representatives Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), and Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and Jack Reed (D-R.I.). Last year, thanks to Senator Reed’s leadership, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation to stop the Department of Interior from issuing polar bear trophy import permits. Unfortunately, the House rejected a similar provision, and the language was not included in the final Omnibus Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2008.

PolarbearbigThe threatened listing for polar bears achieves the same policy goal we have been seeking on trophy imports, but this victory for bears may be temporary. If the species recovers, there will still be a gaping loophole in the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allows polar bear imports to resume. And the Safari Club has already fired a shot across the bow signaling its desire to “to reinstate the ability to import trophies” under federal law.

The trophy hunters may claim there is some conservation or economic value in killing polar bears, but their logic is Orwellian at best. You can’t save the polar bears by killing them. This is high-priced commercial hunting, and when an American trophy hunter spends $30,000 or more to shoot a polar bear, the hefty fees prompt over-exploitation of already vulnerable populations of bears. In 2005, the Nunavut territory of Canada increased hunting quotas by 29 percent, despite concerns expressed by polar bear researchers that the increase in take could be harmful to the population.

Moreover, we have seen no evidence that money charged for polar bear hunting permits is essential to local communities or wildlife conservation. An August 2005 article in the Nunatsiaq News, a Nunavut newspaper, concluded that “most of the spoils never reach Inuit hands, and when they do, those earnings vary substantially from community to community.” The funds are pocketed by commercial outfitters, and spent on transportation, hunting gear, and other incidentals—not spent on conservation.

The bears are in trouble. They are the 21st Century’s canaries in the mineshaft. Shooting them for a living room trophy mount as they struggle to survive in a rapidly changing environment is just selfish and wrong.  The excessive commercial killing of polar bears is only one cause of mortality in the larger constellation of threats they are facing, but it's one course correction we can make right now.

The threatened listing for polar bears makes it even more urgent that we do everything we can to ensure their survival.  While we wrestle with the larger problems of global warming and habitat protection, now is the time to tell your members of Congress to pass the Polar Bear Protection Act, and make sure the door to trophy imports does not swing open in the future.

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