Federal agency tries to write polar bear recovery plan

DILEMMA: Declining sea ice mass is the threat, but agency can't target cause.

August 28, 2011 

In a windowless convention center room more than a thousand miles from polar bears roaming on sea ice, marine mammal biologists gathered last week in Anchorage to work on a recovery plan for the Arctic Ocean's most famous fauna.

The Interior Department three years ago listed polar bears as threatened because of the alarming rate at which sea ice, their primary habitat, is projected to disappear each summer.

In the same announcement, then-Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said endangered species law would not be used to set climate policy or limit greenhouse gas emissions, a rule affirmed by the Obama administration.

The determination that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will not be allowed to address the culprit for warming -- greenhouse gases emitted worldwide -- means the recovery plan will be like no other since the Endangered Species Act was signed by President Nixon 38 years ago.

"The best we can do is work with our domestic and international partners to address symptoms of climate change," said wildlife biologist James Wilder, who heads the recovery plan effort, on Thursday.

Climate models project summer sea ice to be gone by mid-century, and possibly as soon as 2030, for America's two populations of polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's north and northwest coasts. Polar bears use sea ice to den, travel, and most important, to hunt their primary prey, ringed seals.

Rosa Meehan, the USFWS marine mammals manager in Alaska, said recovery plans traditionally have dealt with a very specific threat that causes habitat loss.

"We don't have that," she said. "We're dealing with a projected change and it's not a directed feature, it's this climate change that all of us ... is in some way contributing to."

Figuring out how much greenhouse gas melts what amount of ice, and how that equates to an effect on a particular bear, would require near impossible connections, she said.

"At the end of the day, you can't say, 'Well, someone driving an SUV down in California on the highways is going to make polar bear cub 'A' live two years less," Meehan said. "There's just too many huge steps in there to make those direct connections."

So instead, wildlife managers are focusing on what they can control, such as assessing the condition of polar bear populations through habitat and demographic reviews, which present their own challenges.

Eric Regehr, a polar bear researcher for the agency, noted that there have been nearly 5,000 captures of polar bears in Canada's Western Hudson Bay population, where animals are concentrated on land each fall and fairly easy to access.

The agency must make assessments of the Chukchi polar bear population, shared with Russia, from information gathered from just 220 bear captures between 2008 and 2011. He suggested that policymakers could focus on body condition, reproduction rates and other indices rather than population estimates with high margins of error.

Wilder said it will logistically be extremely difficult to match population information in the Chukchi Sea with information Regehr showed for Western Hudson Bay bears.

"In an ideal world, every year, we'd have a population estimate with a short little error bar around it," he said. "But the truth is, population estimates take a lot of time, so they're time delayed. We have an active management program where we have to make decisions on an annual basis."

The demographic and habitat information and its reliability remain important, Meehan said, even as the agency is not addressing the primary threat.

"We don't know is just exactly how are bears going to respond to this," Meehan said of climate warming. "That type of uncertainly speaks to the importance of demographic measures. Because we think that they're going to tank, but maybe they won't. So you want to measure that, some aspect of how the population is actually responding."

The agency has no hard deadline for the recovery plan but will present a draft at an October meeting with other polar bear countries. The agency likely will have a formal draft recovery plan out for broad public review early next year, Meehan said.

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