Alaska's polar bears are getting an important boost from President Barack Obama's Interior Department with the recent designation of more than 187,000 square miles of "critical habitat" in Arctic sea ice and coastal areas. This habitat protection under the Endangered Species Act is good news for the polar bear -- studies have shown that species with designated critical habitat are nearly twice as likely to recover as those without. But we have a long way to go before we can count the polar bear as being on the road to recovery.
After unsustainable overhunting of polar bears was curtailed in the 1970s, their numbers began to rebound. But now populations in Alaska and elsewhere are falling again because, as the Arctic climate warms, polar bears are losing their sea-ice habitat. The U.S. Geological Survey has projected that two-thirds of the world's polar bears, including all of the polar bears in Alaska, will probably be gone by 2050 -- and perhaps well before then.
The Polar Bear Specialist Group -- the most authoritative voice on the science of polar bears -- already classifies eight of the world's 19 polar bear populations as declining due to global warming and overhunting, including the bears in both Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
Polar bears use sea ice to den, raise their young and hunt their primary prey of ringed and bearded seals. When polar bears are forced to spend time on land, they must rely on fat stores they have built up while hunting on the sea ice. But as the sea ice disappears, and polar bears are forced to spend more time on land, more of them are starving. More polar bears are also drowning, as they are forced to spend more time crossing open water, and as the loss of ice allows for more extreme fall storms in the Arctic Ocean.
If we really want to guarantee that polar bears will be around in the coming century, the Interior Department must take concrete steps to protect the bears. First, it must list polar bears as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act. Polar bears are currently listed as "threatened," a less protective category that has allowed Interior to exempt from scrutiny the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on polar bears and their habitat. The Interior Department is currently under court order to revisit its 2008 decision to list the bears as only "threatened." The department has until Dec. 23 to decide whether polar bears should be considered "endangered."
Given that, absent major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the loss of all the polar bears in the United States over the next 40 years is almost certain, there is no question that polar bears should be listed as "endangered." Such a designation would require Interior to confront the single greatest threat to polar bear survival: greenhouse gas emissions.
Second, the Interior Department must say "no" to risky oil drilling in polar bear critical habitat. Interior is currently considering Shell Oil's plans to drill in the polar bear's critical habitat as early as next summer. Polar bears already have enough to worry about without the threat of an oil spill. A large Arctic oil spill like the one in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year would be impossible to clean up and could seal the fate of Alaska's polar bears, hurling them irrevocably toward extinction.
If President Obama is serious about saving polar bears, he has to make some tough decisions in the coming months. He has to say "yes" to tackling greenhouse gas emissions, and he has to say "no" to oil drilling in polar bear critical habitat. As Americans who value the presence of the polar bear -- and want this mighty animal around for generations to come -- we're relying on the president to do the right thing.
Rebecca Noblin is the Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group that advocates for endangered species and wild places.