Slowing Arctic warming called the only hope for polar bears in the long term

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A polar bear walks along the beach in Kaktovik, Alaska on Sept. 10, 2012. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive 2012)
A polar bear walks along the beach in Kaktovik, Alaska on Sept. 10, 2012. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive 2012)

Just days before the inauguration of a new president who has dismissed climate change as a hoax, the Obama administration has released a broad conservation and recovery plan aimed at helping an icon of Arctic warming — the polar bear.

The plan, written in accordance with the Endangered Species Act and aimed at guiding policies within the United States, identifies climate warming as the single and overwhelming threat to polar bears. Prompt and aggressive reduction of the global greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the north’s rapid warming and dramatically changing the ice-dependent animals’ habitat is “the single most important action for conservation and recovery of polar bears,” the plan says.

“Short of action that effectively addresses the primary cause of diminished sea ice, it is unlikely that polar bears will be recovered,” it says.

[Polar bears’ path to decline runs through an Alaska village]

But with President-elect Donald Trump disparaging climate science and pushing for expanded use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels, will this plan survive?

Members of the team that worked since 2013 to create it said they believe it will.

The plan is a legal requirement, said Jenifer Kohout, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program supervisor who co-chaired the recovery team and policy work group. The Endangered Species Act, which has protected polar bears since they were listed as threatened in 2008, mandates a recovery plan, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which also safeguards polar bears, mandates a conservation plan, she said. The final plan meets both legal mandates in a single document, she said. “We just decided to take care of both,” she said.

The plan also reflects a consensus among a wide range of affected people, including Alaska Natives who hunt polar bears and oil industry representatives whose companies operate in polar-bear habitat.

“We did engage a really diverse group of stakeholders,” Kohout said. The plan is crafted to address concerns of “Alaskans and others who care about bears in the real world,” which includes economic development, traditional hunting and public safety, she said.

[First a polar bear petted a dog. Then a polar bear did what polar bears do: Ate a dog.]

To directly tackle carbon emissions, the plan calls for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies to support ongoing federal efforts to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the target set at the United Nations climate conference held in Paris at the end of 2015.

“That looks like a future that might work out OK for polar bears,” said plan team member Todd Atwood, leader of the U.S. Geological Survey’s polar bear research program.

Even if President-elect Trump follows through on his pledge to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, other nations’ carbon reductions will benefit the Arctic and the polar bears of Alaska, Atwood said.

“We can be a leader or not,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s going to keep other countries from enacting the changes that they’re agreed to.”

While the warming climate is the main threat to polar bears, addressing it will be a long-term process, the plan says.

In the interim, there are several shorter-term tasks that should be undertaken to help Alaska’s polar bears, like reducing human-bear interactions, protecting the places where mother bears dig dens to give birth to cubs and reducing risks of oil spills, the plan says.

In all, the recommended actions would cost about $13 million a year, according to the document.

The plan outlines several policies to manage polar bears roaming on land, an increasingly frequent occurrence as summer and fall sea ice diminishes.

[As Norway’s Arctic draws visitors, more polar bears get shot]

Nearly $1.3 million a year should be spent on programs to keep hungry, land-roaming polar bears separated from Arctic Alaska residents and workers, the plan says. Much of that work is already underway, including local patrols in Arctic communities aimed at keeping both people and bears safe and relatively new programs to reduce the attractions that would bring bears into villages or work sites.

At Kakovik, for example, a village where crowds of polar bears have gathered each fall to feast on scraps of bowhead whales hunted by residents, the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife is working with locals to develop new food-storage systems that are bear-resistant.

Reduced sea ice is driving more female polar bears to give birth to cubs on land, so the plan establishes a goal of protecting denning habitat.

In previous times, from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, about two-thirds of polar bear dens were established on the sea ice, Atwood said. But in about the past decade, about 60 percent of the dens are on land, Atwood said. The central North Slope, site of most of Alaska’s oil production, is increasingly a favored site for denning, he said.

Protecting polar bears will require identifying the places holding mother bears and their newborn cubs — and avoiding any disturbances to them, Atwood said. Those tend to be places along the coastline that with structure that catches snow, he said. “The dens are temporary. They’re just built into the snow. But the features that hold the snow are not very common,” he said.

Since Alaska’s polar bears roam across international borders, the plan released Monday also calls for stepped-up cooperation with Russia and Canada. The Chukchi Sea polar bear population roams between Russia and Canada, and Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula and Wrangel Island are important denning areas. The Southern Beaufort Sea population, which the plan says has fallen to about 900 from an estimated size of 1,800 in 1986, is shared with Canada.

Continued management of subsistence hunting — in cooperation with villagers in Alaska and in neighboring parts of Russia and Canada — is another element of the conservation and recovery strategy. In the United States, only Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt polar bears, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The act, signed by President Nixon in 1972, outlawed trophy hunting of polar bears in the United States, an activity that was the biggest threat to U.S. populations in the past.

The Alaska subsistence hunt is far too small to have any negative population impact, even for the ailing Southern Beaufort Sea population, Atwood said.

The scope of human-caused deaths to polar bears across the Russian border, however, is less known. Polar bear hunting was outlawed for decades in Russia, but there was illegal hunting, much of it driven by poverty. A U.S.-Russia agreement on joint management of Chukchi Sea polar bears authorizes a controlled and legal hunt in Chukotka, with a quota set on both sides of the border.

Other elements of the recovery and conservation plan released on Monday are increased research, including international efforts, and continued work to prevent and respond to oil spills.

The plan does not identify a specific population total that would justify polar bears’ removal from Endangered Species Act listing. Instead, it lays out a series of criteria for a healthy population, including such benchmarks as high survival rates, high cub production and an end to the expansion of open-water periods in Arctic marine areas. If those benchmarks are met and polar bears are believed to have at least a 95 percent chance of persisting for another 100 years, recovery goals will have been met, the plan says.

Read more:

The first Arctic-wide look at polar bears’ sea ice habitat finds conditions worsening everywhere

Polar bear numbers seen declining a third from Arctic sea ice melt

Polar bears in perspective: humanity’s complicated relationship with the Arctic’s iconic predator