Po­lar bears’ slim chances of sur­vival

Ice loss linked to cli­mate change is a pri­mary threat – US ex­perts

Cape Argus - - NEWS -

WED­NES­DAY JAN­UARY 11 2017

AS THE Arc­tic warms faster than any other place on the planet and sea ice de­clines, there is only one sure way to save po­lar bears from ex­tinc­tion, the US gov­ern­ment an­nounced on Mon­day: de­ci­sive action on cli­mate change.

In a fi­nal plan to save an an­i­mal which de­pends on ice to catch prey and sur­vive, the US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice iden­ti­fied the rapid de­cline of sea ice as “the pri­mary threat to po­lar bears” and “the sin­gle most im­por­tant achieve­ment for po­lar bear con­ser­va­tion is de­ci­sive action to ad­dress Arc­tic warm­ing” driven by the hu­man emis­sion of green­house gases.

“Short of action that ef­fec­tively ad­dresses the pri­mary cause of di­min­ish­ing sea ice,” the agency’s plan said, “it is un­likely that po­lar bears will be re­cov­ered.”

That de­ter­mi­na­tion puts the plan it­self on thin ice. Global cli­mate change is out of the con­trol of Fish and Wildlife, a di­vi­sion of the In­te­rior Depart­ment. An in­ter­na­tional ef­fort to ad­dress the is­sue was signed about a year ago in Paris, but pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump has ques­tioned US participation in a treaty that nearly 190 gov­ern­ments signed.

Trump has waf­fled on cli­mate change. When asked about the hu­man link to cli­mate change fol­low­ing his elec­tion, he said: “I think there is some con­nec­tiv­ity… It de­pends on how much.” He also said he would keep an open mind about the in­ter­na­tional cli­mate accord and whether his ad­min­is­tra­tion will with­draw from it.

But he has also openly doubted the find­ings of more than 95 per­cent of cli­mate sci­en­tists who say cli­mate change is driven by hu­man ac­tiv­ity. In 2012, he tweeted that “the con­cept of global warm­ing was cre­ated for and by the Chi­nese to make US man­u­fac­tur­ing non-com­pet­i­tive”.

Fish and Wildlife of­fi­cials de­clined to spec­u­late on whether the next pres­i­dent will fol­low the guid­ance of its new plan. But the sci­en­tists had doubts about the sur­vival of bears be­fore Trump’s elec­tion.

“Even when we started the plan­ning process, that was the dis­cus­sion we were hav­ing… are we wast­ing our time here?” said Jenifer Ko­hout, deputy as­sis­tant di­rec­tor for Fish and Wildlife’s Alaska re­gion and a co-chair­woman of the group that wrote the plan.

“We wanted this plan to par­tially tell that story,” she said, but to also show that there were other steps that could save bears, such as ad­just­ing the num­ber that can be har­vested by Alaska’s na­tive peo­ple de­pend­ing on the rise and fall of the an­i­mal’s pop­u­la­tion. In­dige­nous peo­ple and state of­fi­cials par­tic­i­pated in form­ing the plan. An­other step was to find ways to de­ter hun­gry bears drawn to hu­man’s rub­bish, so that fewer of them are de­stroyed.

For many ob­servers, the con­cern about po­lar bears is odd be­cause more of the an­i­mals ex­ist now than 40 years ago, when pro­tec­tions against hunt­ing were min­i­mal. Sci­en­tists say about 19 pop­u­la­tions make up an es­ti­mated 25 000 to 31 000 bears, in­clud­ing a sub­pop­u­la­tion of about 3 000 that roam Alaska. Es­ti­mates of their in­creases and de­clines go up and down de­pend­ing on which pop­u­la­tion is be­ing counted. But re­searchers say 80 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tions will col­lapse if sea ice con­tin­ues to de­cline. Air tem­per­a­tures at the top of the world are ris­ing twice as fast as those in lower lat­i­tudes, re­sult­ing in sig­nif­i­cant ice melt, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“We’re con­fi­dent that ab­sent action to ad­dress cli­mate change, there would be very sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tion in the range of po­lar bears,” said Michael Runge, a US Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey ecol­o­gist and the plan’s other co-chair­man. – Wash­ing­ton Post

PIC­TURE: SCANPIX

IN PERIL: A po­lar bear on a tiny ice­berg. Their liv­ing con­di­tions are at risk as the cli­mate is get­ting warmer.

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