VANCOUVER - Melting sea ice caused by climate change and government inaction is putting polar bears at extreme risk in Canada as a species over the next 50 years, according to local environmental groups.
In northern Canada and Alaska, drilling for potential oil and gas is also drawing criticism from civil society organisations.
Rachel Plotkin, a biodiversity policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, told IPS, "The main threat is the melting of sea ice which affects the hunting and mating of polar bears. The sea ice is melting faster than it was ever imagined. In the long term, the viability of the species is uncertain."
Two-thirds of the world's polar bears are in Canada, she noted.
"They are also suffering from bio-accumulation of toxins. Canada needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. [However], there are also greater threats on the horizon such as the impact of increased shipping traffic, which will be made possible by the melting sea ice. There will be pressure from oil and gas production. Canada hasn't recognised polar bears as a species at risk. If it did that, the government would then be forced to have a management plan," Plotkin said.
Diminishing ice pack affects polar bears directly as the sea ice is the platform they use to hunt seals. A delay in freezing causes polar bears to lose critical fat reserves during fasting periods. This, in turn, affects reproduction and the ability to produce milk for their cubs. There has already been a 15 percent drop in birth rates.
The U.N. Environment Programme administers the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and was adopted as international law in 1975.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, a government committee, has called the polar bear a species of "special concern". Under the federal Species at Risk Act, the committee will prepare a report, which will be assessed against the listed criteria in April 2008 and which will determine the level of danger to the species based on status, trends, threats and projections for later this century.
Plotkin warns that the current federal government review could delay the implementation of a protection plan until 2012.
Canada has 13 of the 19 world polar bear populations in Nunavut, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Labrador, Northwest Territories and the Yukon. The polar bear can also be found in Alaska, Greenland, Norway and Russia. In 1973, the countries signed the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears. This landmark agreement was reached after major increases in hunting during the 1960s and 1970s.
Canada and Denmark allow trophy hunting by tourists, and all countries except Norway allow traditional hunting by Inuit.
U.S. scientists predict that the polar bear population will decrease by two-thirds by mid-century due to the impact of the melting sea ice.
The polar bear's position at the top of the food pyramid exposes the species to artificial halocarbons such as PCBs and pesticides. Halocarbons can mimic hormone chemistry and PCBs have been associated with birth defects and immune system deficiency. The current population is estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000. According to Polar Bear International, Canada's Western Hudson Bay population has decreased by 22 percent since the early 1980s.
Polar bears spend half their time on ice floes and can swim out to sea, close to 100 kms.
WWF-Canada cites global warming, contamination of the food supply, marine oil pollution and other marine traffic activities in Arctic water, disturbances to key habitats and over-hunting as the main threats to the continued survival of the polar bear population. There continues to be hunting tourism associated with polar bears in northern Canada as well.
"I think we're entering interesting times that will either help or hinder polar bears as a species," Dr. Peter Ewins, director of species conservation at WWF-Canada, told IPS. "What government decides to do is pivotal on whether it will get better or worse, particularly in the Hudson Bay and Beaufort Sea region."
Even though the recommendation regarding polar bears will come in April this year, Canada has also set a date of Jun. 2 to sell oil and gas drilling rights in areas that directly affect polar bears, he said.
"There was a sale of 600 million dollars to Exxon and Mobil Oil in late August 2007 for oil and gas exploration rights, one of the largest ever in Canada. This next one could be in the 2.0-billion-dollar range. It's a sneaky way of getting around the substantive issues," Ewins said. "There's no long-range plan and governments are continuing to use the colonial, frontier development paradigms to rush ahead without understanding the consequences."
In Alaska, the auction of licenses to drill for oil and gas are recording bids as high as 2.66 billion dollars from multinational companies such as Shell and ConocoPhillips, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper. The U.S. government's Mineral Management Service estimates that there are 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves below the Chukchi Sea.
The WWF is opposing oil and gas development on the basis that the technology to clean up oil spills has not yet been well developed and that polar bears and walruses could be put at risk.
© 2008 Inter Press Service