May 14, 2008 19:00 ET

WWF-Canada: U.S. Government Affirms That Climate Change Threatens Future of Polar Bears

Canadians still waiting for government action to protect polar bears

TORONTO, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - May 14, 2008) - Climate change is destroying vital polar bear habitat, putting the species at risk of extinction, the U.S. government said today as it listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This puts increasing pressure on the Canadian government to recognize and act on the accelerating impacts of climate change on Arctic communities and species.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the global conservation organization, said the government's decision clearly indicates that climate change impacts are already threatening the survivability of animals and habitats, and illustrates the urgency of preparing for and adapting to a rapidly changing climate.

"Today's decision is welcome news for polar bears and sound science," said Dr. Peter Ewins, Director, Species Conservation, WWF-Canada. "But it will be a hollow victory unless it prompts action by both Canada and the U.S. to limit greenhouse gas emissions, which are melting the Arctic sea ice on which polar bears rely."

The U.S. government has recognized what the Canadian government has not yet: that climate change is threatening the long-term survival of polar bears. This reinforces the actions that WWF-Canada has been calling for from the Prime Minister. Specifically, WWF-Canada has asked Prime Minister Harper to take three immediate actions:

- Place a moratorium on new industrial development in Arctic areas of high value to polar bears. In particular, stop the June 2nd leasing of areas for oil and gas development in the Beaufort Sea, since proper resource planning has not been done to protect sensitive wildlife habitats.

- Ensure that any hunting for polar bears is fully sustainable. While WWF-Canada recognizes the importance of polar bears to Inuit culture and livelihoods, over-hunting in Nunavut and Greenland has contributed to a massive 30% decline in the Baffin Bay polar bear population in the past 10 years.

- Quickly stop, then reverse the rise in Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. There is still no federal plan to meet Canada's Kyoto Protocol obligation, nor an aggressive plan for energy conservation, renewable energy, and legally-binding reductions of industrial emissions.

Sea ice, on which polar bears depend for hunting seals and other prey, melted to record low levels last summer. The U.S. National Snow Ice and Data Center announced earlier this month that current measurements and projections indicate that the 2008 melt season may also be "extreme," possibly shattering the record set in 2007. Some scientists have predicted that the summer Arctic sea ice could be gone entirely as early as 2013.

Based on the best available science, and if current sea ice trends continue, two-thirds of the world's polar bears will be lost by 2050. "The threatened species designation in the U.S. will now provide additional legal protections for the bears, including the conservation of critical habitat and the development of a government-supported recovery plan," said Geoffrey York, global coordinator of WWF's Polar Bear Conservation Program.

Citing the well-documented loss of sea ice due to climate change, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended in September 2006 that the Interior Department list polar bears as threatened under the ESA. The Interior Department was legally required to issue a formal decision on the ESA listing by January 9, 2008, but failed to do so. On April 28, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the Department to issue a formal decision on the listing by May 15.

"Today's announcement is long overdue," said Margaret Williams, Managing Director of WWF's office in Alaska. "The delay in listing has opened the door to accelerated oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. In February, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which is under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department, auctioned off almost 30 million acres of prime polar bear habitat in Alaska's Chukchi Sea for oil and gas exploration."

The Canadian government is pushing a similar rush to develop oil and gas reserves in the Arctic. "We should be taking every action possible to reduce stresses on polar bears, and we believe that oil and gas activities in Canada's Arctic pose formidable risks to the Arctic sea ice ecosystem and the polar bears that inhabit it," said Dr. Ewins.

WWF has more than 20 years experience in polar bear and Arctic conservation and has a presence in all of the Arctic countries.

For interviews, please contact:

Kyle Ferguson Dr. Peter Ewins
Communications Manager Director, Species Conservation
WWF-Canada WWF-Canada
416 819 5631 647 400 9576

B-roll and high-resolution photographs of polar bears are available to accompany press stories based on this release and mentioning WWF.

Additional information available at wwf.ca

Contact Information

  • WWF-Canada
    Kyle Ferguson
    Communications Manager
    (416) 819-5631
    Dr. Peter Ewins
    Director, Species Conservation
    (647) 400-9576
    Website: www.wwf.ca