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Melting Arctic ice threatens polar bear's survival: should polar bears be put on the endangered species list?


With the Department of Interior poised to decide whether to place polar bears on the federally protected endangered species list, a recent study has concluded that melting Arctic ice is a critical threat to the bears' survival. If current melting trends continue, the bears are likely to become extinct in the southern Beaufort Sea region of Alaska and adjacent Canada, the study concludes.

Using extensive data of polar bears collected by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists from 2001 to 2005, a research team including Hal Caswell of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Christine Hunter of the University of Alaska documented for the first time the way Arctic sea ice affects the bears' survival, breeding, and population growth.

Polar bears need ice as a platform to hunt for their main food source: seals. As the Arctic Ocean became more ice-free over more summer days in 2004 and 2005, polar bear breeding and survival declined below the point needed to maintain the population, the team found.

The population can withstand occasional "bad-ice years," but not a steady diet of them. Some climate studies project that summer Arctic ice may disappear by mid-century. If it does, the polar bear will follow soon after, the scientists say, with two-thirds of polar bears disappearing throughout their entire range.

Interior officials were scheduled to make their decision on polar bears on Jan. 9, then postponed it for a month, citing the complexity of the situation, and still hadn't decided in late March (see story on next page).

The long legal process to be considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act began in 2005, when the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which turned to its research arm, the USGS, for further information.

The USGS had recently completed a painstaking study of one of the 19 polar bear populations in the Arctic--the one living in the southern Beaufort Sea, off the coasts of northern Alaska and Canada. From 2001 to 2005, USGS researchers searched for bears, tranquilized, measured, and tagged them, gave them lip tattoos to identify them, removed a tooth to measure the bears' ages, and then released and tracked the bears in a "mark-recapture" study.

In March 2007, the USGS enlisted Caswell and Hunter, mathematical ecologists who specialize in population dynamics models, to advise the team. They used new analytical methods, developed while Hunter was a postdoctoral investigator at WHOI, to create new models that incorporated USGS-collected information about polar bears' mortality rates, birth rates, life cycles, and habitats. They coupled these models to projections of Arctic climate changes, especially forecasts of sea ice conditions. They calculated the interplay of all these factors--"some 10,000 simulations," Caswell said--to estimate the probabilities of future polar bear population growth or decline.

"Ice, it turns out, is a critical component of the polar bears' environment," Caswell said, "and for the first time we were able to link it directly to population growth."

Like other predators at the top of the food chain, polar bears have a low reproductive rate. One or two cubs are born in midwinter and stay with their mother for two years. Consequently, females breed only every three years. The bears don't reproduce until they are five or six years old.

From late fall until spring, mothers with new cubs den in snowdrifts on land or on pack ice. They emerge from their dens, with the new cubs, in the spring to hunt seals from floating sea ice. (In many languages, they are more fittingly called ice bears. They are unipolar, inhabiting only the Arctic, an ice-covered ocean, not the ice-covered continent of Antarctica.) Simply put, if there isn't enough sea ice, seals can't haul out on the ice, and polar bears can't hunt them.

In each of the first three years of the USGS surveys, the near-shore ice melted an average of about 100 days, and the southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population grew about 5 percent per year. But in 2004 and 2005, the number of "ice-free" days increased to about 135, and the population declined by about 25 percent per year. During the same period, polar bear researchers in the Arctic reported seeing things they had never seen before: emaciated bears, starving bears, bears drowning, and bear cannibalism.

The population models suggested that 130 "ice-free" days is a threshold, constituting a "bad ice year" that has negative impacts on the polar bear population. The frequency of bad ice years is critical: If they occur too often (more often than once every six years or so), the bear population shrinks, the scientists said. All the climate models examined predict that bad ice years will occur more often in the future, as the Arctic warms. That projects a dire future for polar bears, though some small populations might hang on in isolated regions where ice remains, Caswell said.

Caswell and Hunter, along with USGS polar bear biologists Erich Regher and Steven Amstrup; Michael Runge from the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland; and Ian Sterling from the Canadian Wildlife Service, issued two reports on the southern Beaufort Sea polar bears, in September 2007. They were among nine reports presented to the FWS and USGS administrations and to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne.

"These are very discouraging reports," Caswell said. "You could see the expressions on the faces of the audience change as the presentation went on and they became aware of the severity of the situation."


Following the release of the reports, a public comment period elicited tens of thousands of responses from both opponents and supporters. Many opponents invoked uncertainty as their main criticism. The Resource Development Council, for example, claimed that "all major studies by the USGS are filled with uncertainty and doubt." And in an op-ed piece Jan. 5, 2008, in The New York Times, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska wrote, "the possible listing of a healthy species like the polar bear would be based on uncertain modeling of possible effects" [of climate change].

Such interpretations, however, demonstrate a serious misunderstanding of the nature of scientific results, Caswell said. "Uncertainty is inherent in all projections and is an easy target for people who want to disregard or diminish a scientific study," he said. "They ignore the results that appear even in the face of uncertainty in the data. In the case of the polar bear, the conclusions about population decline and the effects of sea ice changes on that decline are robust--in spite of the uncertainty. "

If climate change and melting Arctic sea ice are the cause of polar bears' decline, reversing it may be enormously difficult. The bears' situation contrasts with another endangered species, whose demography Caswell has also analyzed: the North Atlantic right whale.

"At least there are obvious ways to help the whale," Caswell said. "We know that ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements kill them, and we can try to mitigate those factors, even if it is difficult. In the polar bear's case, there may not be an easy way to fix it. But it is important to note that the Endangered Species Act responds to the risk of extinction facing a species, regardless of the causes of that risk or of whether it will be easy or difficult to reduce the risk."

Long-delayed decision on polar bears--curiously--remains pending

The U.S. Department of Interior was slated to issue its decision on listing polar bears as an endangered species on Jan. 9, but a tangle of interests, delays, and developments surrounding the decision continued as this issue of Oceanus went to press.

On Jan. 2, the U.S. Minerals Management Service, a branch of the Interior Department, announced that on Feb. 6 it would offer leases for exploration for oil and gas on nearly 30 million acres of the continental shelf in the Chukchi Sea, which lies north of the Bering Strait, between Alaska and Russia--an ecologically sensitive area, and home to one of the two U. S. populations of polar bears.

On Jan. 7, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), another Interior Department branch, postponed for 30 days its decision on listing polar bears, saying it needed more time to study reports submitted by its research arm, the U.S. Geological Survey, which is also a branch of the Department of the Interior. Conservation groups expressed dismay and alleged that the delay would allow the oil and gas leases to go through before any listing could take place.

In mid-January, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives committees on global warming held hearings and requested Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to hold up the lease sales until the polar bear decision was made. And at the end of January, conservation groups and Alaska natives filed suit in federal court, challenging the sale of the oil and gas leases. However, the sales went forward, netting a record amount--nearly $2.7 billion--which will go to the federal government, not to the state of Alaska.

On March 8, Department of the Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney, responding to a letter from six environmental groups, announced that he will open a preliminary investigation into why the FWS has delayed for months a decision on polar bears' status. On March 10, three conservation groups filed suit against the FWS in federal court, for failure to deliver a decision on listing polar bears as endangered.
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Author:Madin, Kate
Geographic Code:0ARCT
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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