Listing polar bears under the ESA won't do much good, but we should do it anyway.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Jan. 17 2008 12:24 PM

Polar Bear Politics

Listing polar bears under the Endangered Species Act won't do much good, but we should do it anyway.

Polar Bear
Are polar bears on the verge of extinction?

Just over a year ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Last week, the service missed the deadline to finalize or withdraw that proposal. Environmental groups have already filed a notice of intent to sue if Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne delays much longer.

But it's not immediately obvious that listing the polar bear makes sense. In the short term, populations are at reasonably high levels and holding steady. In the longer term, designating polar bears for protection won't stop climate change and therefore won't save their Arctic sea ice habitat. Given these harsh facts, is this battle to list the polar bear right away worth the fight?

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There isn't much debate over the dangers posed to the polar bear. The Arctic sea ice has diminished noticeably in recent years, and climate models predict further losses to come.

It's true that polar bears are doing better than most species when they reach the protected list. The population worldwide is estimated at 20,000 to 25,000 and appears to be stable under current conditions. (For comparison, a 1993 study published in Conservation Biology reported a median population size of 4,000 for animals that had been listed as threatened species.) But population numbers don't tell the whole story, and current conditions are unlikely to persist. The key conclusion in the Fish and Wildlife Service's proposal to list the bear as threatened—that anticipated reductions in sea ice will put the polar bear at grave risk of extinction by the middle of this century—is supported by extensive peer review and by a series of reports issued last fall by the U.S. Geological Survey. Furthermore, species are "endangered" under the ESA if they are currently in danger of extinction, and they are "threatened" if they are likely to reach endangered status in the foreseeable future. (Click here [PDF] to read the relevant section of the law.) To determine whether those definitions are met, the service must look beyond current population numbers to how those numbers are likely to change.

That's what happened with the snail darter, the famous little fish that temporarily halted construction of the Tellico Dam. When it was listed as endangered in 1975, the snail darter was thriving in the lower Little Tennessee River. That stretch of the Little Tennessee, though, was scheduled to be drowned under the Tellico Reservoir. (Congress exempted the dam from the ESA nevertheless. The fish later turned up in a few nearby streams and persists today as a threatened species.) The threat to polar bears is developing on a longer timeline than the threat to snail darters, but the reasoning is the same: Human actions now are predictably committing the bear to future peril.

A second objection to the proposed listing is that it will not save the bear. For all its vaunted strength, the ESA does not provide an effective mechanism for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions. First, the ESA has no purchase against emissions that originate outside the United States. Second, even within the United States, greenhouse-gas emissions come from a multitude of sources. The ESA was designed to deal with actions directly connected to an affected species, such as overharvest or habitat development. It is ill-equipped to deal with the individual decisions that are responsible for a large proportion of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.