Political science

Lacking studies, state still disputes polar bear 'doom'

January 27, 2008 

Ken Taylor has had easier jobs than this one. It's not like the good old days chasing rhinos, climbing into bear dens and wrestling beluga whales in shallow water.

These days, sitting at a desk as deputy commissioner of fish and game, the veteran wildlife biologist has to muster the best science he can find to argue that Alaska's polar bears are in good shape and need no special protection from hypothetical doomsday scenarios.

This requires Taylor to stand up to the prevailing wisdom about global warming in most of the world's scientific community and the public -- not to mention some pretty strong opinions in his own department.

But Taylor, the Palin administration's point man on polar bears, argues that the scientific justification simply isn't there -- at least not yet -- to declare the polar bear "threatened" and touch off a cascade of effects under the Endangered Species Act. A decision on the bears is expected from the U.S. Department of the Interior in the next few weeks.

"From my perspective, it's very difficult to put a population on the list that's healthy, based on a projection 45 years into the future," Taylor says. "That's really stretching scientific credibility."

The state's own scientific credibility hasn't been helped by the fact that the Fish and Game Department no longer has any polar bear experts of its own. Nor did it help that, when state officials found a scientific study reinforcing their polar bear stance, a congressional committee called a hearing to decry "phony science" and Exxon Mobil-funded "climate deniers."

Still, Taylor has helped produce two reports in the past year arguing against an endangered species listing.

The state argues that there's too much uncertainty about the future of the Arctic ice sheet on which the polar bears depend. Explanations for global warming other than greenhouse gas emissions, such as sun spots and variations in the earth's orbit, need to be considered, the state says.

And despite experts who call the idea "fanciful," the state argues that polar bears forced onto land might be able to adapt quickly by eating birds, caribou and other terrestrial species.

"The country is being hit with sky-is-falling-type articles," said Taylor. "Very little attention is being given to those who say it's overblown."

ARGUING THE STATE'S CASE

Gov. Sarah Palin is leading the state's fight. In an op-ed column in The New York Times earlier this month, she said there is "insufficient evidence" to justify such a listing -- an opinion she said was based on "a comprehensive review" of the science by state wildlife officials.

With limited peer-reviewed science available that concludes the bears are doing fine, however, the state devotes most of its space to challenging everyone else's work.

That pits Taylor and his staff -- and several national consultants from the warming-is-overblown camp -- against polar bear biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and leading international authorities in the World Conservation Union's Polar Bear Specialist Group, not to mention the climatologists of the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Studies by those scientists contend that Alaska's polar bear populations are already showing signs of stress and decline linked to summer melting of their ice habitat. Ice shrinkage models suggest that two-thirds of the world's polar bears will be gone by the year 2050. Scientists now say the Arctic ice may be melting even faster than that.

The Palin administration's effort to block action by raising uncertainty has moved the state to the dubious margins of scientific credibility, according to environmentalists.

"They're not presenting a fair picture of the science," said Deborah Williams, a former Interior Department official who now heads the climate nonprofit Alaska Conservation Solutions. "It's a terrible disservice, to release something so irresponsibly biased."

National environmental groups sued to prompt the federal endangered-species review. They say the state is giving credibility to industry-funded dissenters whose studies are designed to confuse the public and the press.

"The deniers somehow manage to get a very small number of such papers published, and then those who oppose greenhouse gas regulation or protection of the polar bear seize upon them and promote them and ignore the fact that virtually the entire scientific community disagrees with them," said Kassie Siegel, the climate program director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

At stake is the state's credibility in other areas where a balanced view of science is important, such as predator control and oil spill cleanups, said Rick Steiner, a professor with the University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program.

Steiner filed a freedom-of-information request last month seeking records of the state's polar bear decision-making, including contacts between state officials and oil companies. He said he fears the state's position is driven by oil company concerns.

Fish and Game officials said a search of electronic records for polar bear and predator control communications would cost Steiner $468,784. Steiner is appealing.

RIPPLES OUTSIDE ALASKA

A federal listing of the polar bear as threatened could have far-reaching consequences, depending on the management plan drawn up to protect the bears.

State officials have expressed concern about effects a threatened-species listing could have on international hunting agreements and future oil and gas development in the Arctic. Sen. Ted Stevens echoed those concerns this month, saying bear protections could interfere with construction of a gas pipeline from the North Slope. Rep. Don Young and Sen. Lisa Murkowski have also spoken against the listing, which has been cited by opponents of a pending federal oil lease sale in Alaska's Chukchi Sea.

Past oil drilling on northern lands has not hurt the polar bears, according to federal studies. Environmentalists counter that current interest in offshore Arctic drilling presents new risks, including oil spills into water.

An even bigger question, spreading far beyond Alaska, is: How will a management plan protect the bears from anticipated habitat loss? Will it focus on new protections for the last few bears on land? Or will it provide new leverage over federal permits for projects in the Lower 48, raising challenges on everything from new freeways to coal-fired power plants -- all in an effort to curb greenhouse gases?

"When I voted for the creation of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, I never envisioned that gas and coal plants in the deserts of Arizona could be adversely affected by the listing of polar bears in the Alaskan Arctic," Young said this month.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups say this is just the result they hope for: using the polar bear to address global climate issues. Anything less and the bears are doomed, they say.

Federal officials say there is nothing in the law to preclude listing species threatened by climate change. They say this is the first time such a listing might be made.

These are big issues, but they are secondary right now. They come to the fore later, if the bears are listed as "threatened" and a management plan must be prepared.

For now, the battleground is science.

The Endangered Species Act requires a listing decision to be made strictly on the basis of the best scientific information regarding the foreseeable future.

In other arenas, the Palin administration does not dispute that the globe is getting warmer. Because Alaska is so far north, the state has felt more impacts of climate change than any others.

With fanfare, Palin appointed a subcabinet to address climate change issues. The Department of Environmental Conservation Web site says global warming poses a serious threat to Alaska, and calls the satellite data on shrinking sea ice "convincing evidence" that change is under way.

But when it comes to polar bears, skepticism is the theme.

"We did not ignore any facts in our response to the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing," Palin said this month in an e-mail response to a question on the state's scientific backup. "We simply countered the arguments they presented with factual information they did not consider in their proposal. We also critically reviewed the assumptions upon which the proposed analysis was based."

DEARTH OF DATA

Both sides in the debate agree that polar bear population data are scarce.

Scientists say numbers around the Arctic grew significantly after most hunting was banned 35 to 40 years ago. The elusive bears have not been closely monitored, however, until the past few years.

Some bear populations still seem to be doing fine. But studies in Alaska between 2001 and 2005 showed a falloff in bear survival during years with less sea ice. A few years' data are not enough to warrant a threatened-species listing, state officials say.

Broader estimates for the southern Beaufort region would seem worrying, with population declining from 1,800 bears in the 1980s to a current estimate of 1,526. But techniques used for the two surveys were different, making the comparison statistically meaningless, federal scientists say.

The state emphasized that statistical problem as it declared the population stable. For evidence, the state mainly cited data from a 2006 federal study.

The state did not mention that the same federal study goes on to raise concerns about increasing cub mortality and shrinking size of adult bears, details that suggest trouble for the region's bears. The study actually concluded the population is changing for the worse.

Does the lack of hard statistical proof of a decline mean the population can be called stable?

"They're certainly not necessarily declining," said Doug Vincent-Lang, a fisheries biologist now serving as a Fish and Game special assistant on endangered species. Given the implications of a listing, he said, shouldn't the government have better data?

ALASKA AGAINST EVERYONE ELSE

Biologists who contributed to the federal endangered-species process have been told not to respond publicly to the state's comments, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Their response will be incorporated in the final decision, the agency said.

But Andrew Derocher, one of Canada's two top polar bear biologists, says the state is presenting a "bizarre" view of wildlife conservation.

"There's a very clear consensus that the population in the Beaufort Sea is not doing well," said Derocher, the current chairman of the international Polar Bear Specialist Group. "Polar bear scientists without exception are very concerned about the long-term preservation of the species."

The state also pokes at studies used to predict the future of polar ice, quoting at length from the climate scientists' own demurrals about margins of error. The chain of predicted problems following from those studies are based on "unsupported conjecture," the state says.

The state's critique was based on the work of a consultant, J. Scott Armstrong, a University of Pennsylvania expert on mathematical forecasting who has elsewhere challenged former vice president Al Gore to a $10,000 bet on whether the globe is truly warming.

The federal ice forecasts are actually considered conservative. Nine gloomy new studies released last fall by the USGS drew on the most likely projections of ice loss by the IPCC. The state contends the federal analysis should have included "outlying" scenarios deemed less likely to occur. That would have required biologists to consider studies predicting more ice -- and more bears.

But if anything, the federal analysis was too cautious. New ice studies are showing that the IPCC models actually underestimated the ice shrinkage of the past few years. A study released this month by the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., says summer sea ice could be gone from the North Pole as soon as 2030. A widely quoted NASA scientist says it might even be gone by 2012.

Fish and Game drew on other state agencies for its comments. But the state was not able to cite its own research on polar bears -- despite Palin's reassuring comment in The New York Times that "state biologists are studying polar bears and their habitats."

The state gave up polar bear research to the federal government after passage of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and now plays only a small role in those studies.

"They've done a clever thing," said Jack Lentfer, a retired polar bear biologist who managed the last state polar bear program, switching to the feds after 1972. Lentfer thinks the state is ignoring the consensus of active researchers. "They've got someone who can write in a scientific way. But if you look at it, it doesn't have any substance. They're speaking in generalities."


Find Tom Kizzia online at adn.com/contact/tkizzia or call him at 907-235-4244.