WASHINGTON D.C., May 14, 2008 – Climate change is destroying vital polar bear habitat, putting the species at risk of extinction, the U.S. government said today as it listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world’s largest conservation organization, said the government’s decision clearly indicates that climate change impacts are already threatening the survivability of animals and habitats, and illustrates the urgency of preparing for and adapting to a rapidly changing climate.
“Today’s decision is a tremendous victory for one of the world’s most iconic and charismatic animals,” said Carter Roberts, president and CEO of WWF-US. “The other big winner today is sound science, which has clearly trumped politics, providing polar bears a new lease on life.”
“WWF commends the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for heeding the unequivocal science that the survival of the polar bear is inextricably tied to its Arctic sea ice habitat, which is melting more rapidly than at any other time in recorded human history,” said Margaret Williams, managing director of WWF’s office in Alaska. “We must take the necessary measures now to help save the polar bear. The ESA listing is an important first step, but we must also address the underlying cause of climate change: rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions.”
Sea ice, which polar bears depend on for hunting seals and other prey, melted to record low levels last summer. The National Snow Ice and Data Center announced earlier this month that current measurements and projections indicate that the 2008 melt season may also be “extreme,” possibly shattering the record set in 2007. Some scientists have predicted that the summer Arctic sea ice could be gone entirely as early as 2013.
“Based on the best available science, if current sea ice trends continue, two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will be lost by 2050,” said Geoffrey York, coordinator of WWF’s Polar Bear Conservation Program. "The threatened species designation will now provide additional legal protections for the bears, including the conservation of critical habitat and the development of a government-supported recovery plan.”
Citing the well-documented loss of sea ice due to climate change, the FWS recommended in September 2006 that the Interior Department list polar bears as threatened under the ESA. The Interior Department was legally required to issue a formal decision on the ESA listing by January 9, 2008, but failed to do so. On April 28, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the Department to issue a formal decision on the listing by May 15.
“Today’s announcement is long overdue,” said Williams. “The delay in listing has opened the door to accelerated oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. In February, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which is under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department, auctioned off almost 30 million acres of prime polar bear habitat in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea for oil and gas exploration.”
WWF is part of a coalition of Alaska native and conservation organizations that filed suit in federal district court in Alaska, arguing that MMS did not adequately weigh the impacts of oil and gas activities on indigenous communities and wildlife along Alaska’s North Slope.
“We should be taking every action possible to reduce stresses on polar bears, and we believe that oil and gas activities pose formidable risks to the Arctic sea ice ecosystem and the polar bears that inhabit it,” said York.
WWF has more than 20 years experience in polar bear and Arctic conservation and has a presence in all of the Arctic countries.
Note to editors:
- On April 28, 2008, a U.S. District Court ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to issue a decision by 2:00 p.m. on May 15 on whether to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act.
- In February 2008, the Minerals Management Service opened nearly 30 million acres of prime polar habitat to oil and gas exploration.
- In January 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a delay in listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act.
- In December 2007, NASA scientist Dr. H. Jay Zwally forecasted a total lack of summer sea ice as early as 2012.
- In September 2007, following the news that all records for summer sea ice minimum had been broken, the U.S. Geological Survey released a detailed report concluding that the loss of sea ice will likely lead to localized extinctions of polar bears, with as much of a two-thirds population decline worldwide.
- In June 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that warming of the world’s climate systems is “unequivocal” and pointed to human activities, such as the 70 percent increase of global heat trapping gases in the last three decades, as a leading cause of the changes.
- On December 26, 2006 the Service released a proposal for the listing. Since then, numerous reports have documented the extensive global change due to rising temperatures.
B-roll and high-resolution photographs of polar bears are available to accompany press stories based on this release and mentioning World Wildlife Fund.
For more information: worldwildlife.org/polarbears
About World Wildlife Fund
For more than 45 years, WWF has been protecting the future of nature. The largest multinational conservation organization in the world, WWF works in 100 countries and is supported by 1.2 million members in the United States and close to 5 million globally. WWF's unique way of working combines global reach with a foundation in science, involves action at every level, from local to global, and ensures the delivery of innovative solutions that meet the needs of both people and nature. Go to worldwildlife.org to learn more.