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Polar bears may join threatened species list

WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department proposed Wednesday to designate polar bears as a threatened species, saying that the accelerating loss of the Arctic ice that is the bears' hunting platform has led biologists to believe that bear populations...

WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department proposed Wednesday to designate polar bears as a threatened species, saying that the accelerating loss of the Arctic ice that is the bears' hunting platform has led biologists to believe that bear populations will decline, perhaps sharply, in the coming decades.

Many experts on the Arctic say global warming is causing the ice to melt and that the warming is at least partly the result of the build-up in the atmosphere of heat-trapping gases emitted from automobile tailpipes and industrial smokestacks.

The plight of the polar bear has been pointed out by environmentalists as a symbol of global warming caused by humans.

But in a conference call with reporters, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said that although his decision to seek protection for polar bears acknowledged the melting of the Arctic ice, his department was not taking a position on why the ice was melting or what to do about it.

While the Bush administration "takes climate change very seriously and recognizes the role of greenhouse gases in climate change," Kempthorne said, it was not his department's job to assess causes or prescribe solutions. "That whole aspect of climate change is beyond the scope of the Endangered Species Act," Kempthorne added.

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The scientific analysis in the proposal, however, did assess the cause of melting ice. Most of the studies on the Arctic climate and ice trends cited to support the proposed listing assumed that the buildup of greenhouse gases was probably contributing to the loss of sea ice, or that the continued build-up of these gases, left unchecked, could create ice-free Arctic summers later this century, and possibly in as little as three decades.

The Interior Department has a year to gather and study comments on the proposed listing and make a final determination. It must also work out a recovery plan to control and reduce harmful impacts to the species, usually by controlling the activities that cause the species harm.

It is unclear whether such a recovery plan could avoid addressing the link between greenhouse-gas emissions and the increase in Arctic temperatures.

Kert Davies, the research director for Greenpeace USA, one of three environmental groups that sued the Interior Department in 2005 to force it to add polar bears to the list of threatened species, said the Bush administration is "clearly scrambling for credibility of any kind in this issue."

He added: "They've boxed themselves in by the things they've said," suggesting a lack of scientific consensus.

Kassie Siegel, the lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, a group based in Arizona that took the lead in the lawsuit calling on the department to list the polar bear, added, "I don't see how even this administration can write this proposal without acknowledging that the primary threat to polar bears is global warming and without acknowledging the science of global warming."

The Interior Department had a court-ordered deadline of Wednesday to make a decision, a result of the lawsuit.

The worldwide population of polar bears stands between 20,000 and 25,000, broken into 19 groups in Russia, Denmark, Norway, Canada and the United States. One-quarter to one-fifth of that population occupies waters off the shores off Alaska or the nearby coastlines, with separate groups in the Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska, the Northern Beaufort Sea and the Southern Beaufort Sea off the North Slope of Alaska

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Polar bears are dependent on sea ice as a platform for hunting seals, and as a pathway to take them to coastal areas. The ice shrinkage has meant that polar bears, which are strong swimmers, have had to cover longer distances between ice and land.

They have survived previous Arctic warming periods, including the last warm stretch between ice ages about 130,000 years ago, but some climate experts project that nothing in the species' history is likely to match the pace and extent of warming and ice retreats projected in this century and beyond, should emissions of greenhouse gases continue unabated.

Scott Schliebe, a federal biologist and the polar bear project leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the basic connection between shrinking ice and greater distress for the bears was well established. This is shown clearly in areas where ice has retreated progressively in summers -- including the Beaufort Sea off the North Slope of Alaska and Canada's Hudson Bay.

In such places, Schliebe said, "We know today that they're facing a situation of distress and nutritional stress."

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