Polar bears were listed under the Endangered Species Act in the United States in 2008 because of climate change effects on critical habitat. Declines in sea ice, the bears’ primary habitat, prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey to recommend a “threatened” listing, which the Secretary of the Interior approved. Sea ice provides breeding, hunting, and feeding grounds and travel corridors for the bears; documented sea ice melt from increased air temperatures and changes in ocean circulation patterns in the Arctic have threatened the reliability of this habitat for polar bears.
Polar bears have been the subjects of a variety of national, multilateral, and transboundary conservation agreements and treaties since the 1970s. These mammals reside in the Arctic and spend much of their lives on sea ice. In 2006, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) determined that increasing temperatures due to global warming were significantly decreasing the amount of sea ice habitat available to polar bears. The U.S. Department of the Interior listed polar bears as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2008.
Based on multiple peer-reviewed scientific reports, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey petitioned the U.S. Department of the Interior to designate polar bears as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2006. This petition was based on research that showed massive declines in sea ice, the bears’ primary habitat, as a result of increasing temperatures. Sea ice is critical to the survival of polar bear population throughout the Arctic; bears use this habitat as hunting, feeding, breeding, and migratory grounds. Declines in sea ice decrease the availability of this habitat for polar bears and threaten their continued survival.
The Secretary of the Interior approved the petition and polar bears were officially designated under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is creating a species recovery plan for polar bear populations located in U.S. territories. Experts and stakeholders, including scientists, managers, and Arctic residents, are convening to identify actions and responses needed to fulfill this directive.
Polar bears have been the subject of a number of national, international, and multilateral treaties and agreements, including:
- listings as a “species of concern” in Canada and Russia;
- Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1973;
- Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears (1973) – a multilateral agreement signed by Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United States, and Russia, which regulates hunting and encourages the free exchange of research;
- bilateral treaty between U.S. and Russia in 2000 to protect Bering/Chukchi Sea population of polar bears; and
- a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and Canadian Minister of the Environment to cooperate on polar bear management and research.
In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to formulate an agreement between indigenous hunters in Canada (Inuvialuit) and Alaska (Inupiat) to limit overharvesting.
Polar bears are one of the first species designated under the U.S. Endangered Species Act because of climate change concerns. Melting sea ice has already reduced and will continue to condense the amount of this critical habitat available to polar bears. This designation will provide additional attention, research, and resources directed towards protecting U.S. populations of polar bears.
Gregg, R. M. (2010). Polar Bear Designation Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act [Case study on a project of the U.S. Department of the Interior]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: http://www.cakex.org/case-studies/polar-bear-designation-under-us-endan… (Last updated May 2010)