© Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures.com

7/6/2015 4:43:46 PM

U.S. Polar Bear Recovery Plan

By Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a draft version of its polar bear conservation plan for public comment. The plan cites global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as the most important action needed to ensure the survival of polar bears.

The plan also recommends interim steps until that happens, giving polar bears a chance to survive. These strategies include better management of polar bear-human conflicts—which are expected to increase as the sea ice retreats—and of subsistence harvests. Other recommendations include guidelines to protect polar bear dens and to minimize the risk of oil spills.

Member of the Team

I feel fortunate for my role in developing the plan. As a member of the U.S. Polar Bear Recovery Team, I joined a diverse group of stakeholders and experts led by the FWS. Our team included representatives from federal agencies, the State of Alaska, North Slope Borough, Alaska Native organizations, industry, nonprofit organizations, and the Canadian Wildlife Service.

In many respects, our team faced a unique task: to create a recovery or management plan for a species whose primary threat is largely in the future, not the past. Historically, species or habitats received legal protections only after they were severely degraded by fairly clear actions (e.g., damming a river, cutting down a forest, polluting a lake). The polar bear's case is different, and that led to many interesting policy, science, and value discussions among team members as we worked with the primary authors from the Service and the USGS in drafting the current plan.

Why Create a Plan?

The U.S. Department of the Interior listed the polar bear as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in May of 2008. The agency based the listing on three primary findings: sea ice is vital to polar bear survival; sea ice habitat has dramatically melted in recent decades; and models strongly suggest that sea ice is likely to continue to recede into the future unless we take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Species protected under the ESA are listed as either Endangered or Threatened, depending on their status. A species listed as Endangered is in danger of becoming extinct throughout a significant portion of its current range. Threatened species, such as the polar bear, are those likely to become Endangered in the foreseeable future.

The ESA lays out a variety of protective options for listed species, including the development of recovery plans. These plans outline the steps needed for the species to recover and eventually be removed from ESA protections. An important note: An ESA listing does not mean there can be "no use" of that resource. As with the Marine Mammal Protection Act, an exemption remains for subsistence harvest of polar bears along with the production and sale of polar bear derived handicrafts by Alaska Natives. 

The conservation plan must meet requirements of both the ESA and the MMPA. The final plan will serve as the U.S. contribution to the circumpolar Conservation Action Plan being developed by the five polar bear Range States (United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the Russian Federation). That plan is due for completion in 2016.

The U.S. plan outlines specific actions needed to address polar bear conservation. These range from education and outreach on climate impacts to harvest management and conflict reduction. Designed as a living document, the plan will be revised as new information comes available or as situations change on the ground.

Comment Period

The FWS has released the draft plan for public review and comment. I hope all interested people and organizations will take advantage of this opportunity to participate. Following the comment period, which runs through September 19, the team will review suggestions. The final plan is scheduled for release by the end of this year. At that point, the Recovery Team will transition to an Implementation Team—leading to more tangible work with both U.S. polar bear populations and hopefully across the Arctic.

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