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Environment

#55: Polar Bears (Finally) Make the Endangered Species List

At long last, the government acknowledges the species is threatened.

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In May the U.S. Department of the Interior classified polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Documented declines in sea ice and anticipation of massive melting that threatens the bears’ habitat prompted the action.

Although there is wide consensus that global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions is speeding up the depletion of Arctic sea ice, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne stressed that the Act’s purview does not extend to regulating gases related to the problem. Instead the new classification will be used to strengthen already existing regulations concerning the killing of polar bears and the importing of related products to the United States. It will, for instance, make it illegal for sports hunters to bring trophies into the United States. Such hunters have in the past spent thousands of dollars to have native guides take them on polar bear hunts, a practice that may fall out of favor in light of the new classification. “It’s doubtful,” says Valerie Fellows, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “that many hunters will want to pay that much money if they can’t bring their trophy home with them.”

Polar bears are just one of a number of Alaskan marine animals listed as threatened or endangered by the Department of the Interior. Others include the albatross, the leatherback sea turtle, the northern sea otter, the Steller sea lion, and the humpback whale. It also concerns some ecologists that the narwhal, the strange, arctic whale whose long spiral tusk may have inspired the unicorn myth, faces similar habitat threats.

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