Polar Bear Designation Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act

Created: 6/29/2010 - Updated: 12/05/2018

Summary

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.

Background

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.

Implementation

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.

Outcomes and Conclusions

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.

Status

Information gathered from online resources. Last updated on 5/29/10.

Citation

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-endang... (Last updated May 2010)

Project Contacts

The U.S. Department of the Interior protects and manages the Nation's natural resources and cultural heritage; provides scientific and other information about those resources; and honors its trust responsibilities or special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated Island Communities. The Interior heads eight technical bureaus: Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Minerals Management Service, National Park Service, Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S.

Keywords

Scale of Project: 
Multilateral / Transboundary
National / Federal
Sector Addressed: 
Conservation / Restoration
Rural / Indigenous Livelihoods
Wildlife
Target Climate Changes and Impacts: 
Air temperature
Habitat extent
Species of concern
Other
Climate Type: 
Polar
Timeframe: 
1-3 years
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy: 
Natural Resource Management / Conservation
Incorporate climate change into harvest/take policies
Incorporate climate change into critical habitat rules / species recovery plans
Incorporate climate change into threatened / endangered species designations
Taxonomic Focus: 
Mammals
Effort Stage: 
Completed