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Friday 12 January 2007 Don't panic
Polar bears
Are they on the verge of extinction?

Panic: ‘Don’t wait to save the polar bear,’ declares Kassie Siegel in an article for the LA Times this week. Siegel, a staff attorney at the conservation lobby group the Center for Biological Diversity, argues that the US government’s proposal to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act - because of the loss of its sea ice habitat from global warming - is a major step forward.

‘The bear is entirely dependent on sea ice, using it as a platform on which to travel, hunt and give birth. Yet each year, as the Arctic warms, the sea ice shrinks. Polar bear populations are already suffering from drowning, starvation and lower cub survival. Absent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the summer sea ice, and the polar bear, may disappear entirely in less than 40 years.’

Don’t panic: The evidence on polar bears numbers seems contradictory, to say the least. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, most of the recent alarm has arisen from a single peer-reviewed study in the western Hudson Bay which showed bear numbers had fallen in the area by 250, or 25 per cent, over the last decade. However, as Mitchell Taylor, a Canadian polar bear biologist noted last May:

‘Climate change is having an effect on the west Hudson population of polar bears, but really, there is no need to panic. Of the 13 populations of polar bears in Canada , 11 are stable or increasing in number. They are not going extinct, or even appear to be affected at present. It is noteworthy that the neighbouring population of southern Hudson Bay does not appear to have declined, and another southern population (Davis Strait) may actually be over-abundant.’

What is enlightening about Siegel’s article is the way her group has been banging away for some time to try to bind the Bush administration to act on global warming using conservation legislation. Having tried unsuccessfully to force public policy through the defence of such notable species as the Kittlitz’s murrelet, and the staghorn and elkhorn corals, the Center finally managed to cobble together enough of a case on an animal the world has actually heard of, the big white fluffy polar bear, to win a case. Why try to win a political argument when you can use bureaucratic measures instead?

The polar bear is increasingly used as a symbol, much like the whale in the past, of man’s plundering and destruction of nature. But we should greet such scare stories with scepticism - and the methods of many American lobby groups with disdain.

Don’t wait to save the polar bear, LA Times, 8 January 2007

Polar Bear Politics, Wall Street Journal, 3 January 2007

Last stand of our wild polar bears, Mitchell Taylor, 1 May 2006

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