The iconic symbol of global warming is the polar bear - that awesome creature so extraordinarily adapted to survive at the top of the world. We are all thunderstruck as we see footage of these bears skittering on thin ice or clinging precariously to a small and shrunken iceberg in a vast ocean, where they seem almost stranded at sea. They adapted to the arctic environment, but that environment is changing too fast for them.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has made a preliminary finding that polar bears should now be listed as "threatened" with extinction. Scientists report polar bears are having a harder time hunting seals because of melting ice, and they have reported drops in body weights and increased mortality.
And while global warming is the greatest threat to the polar bears, they also face peril from other human actions. It's hard to believe, but trophy hunters are still killing polar bears in Canada. And most of the trophy hunters are Americans. They cannot kill these majestic bears in the United States where it is illegal. So they purchase hunting rights from natives in the north of Canada.
American trophy hunters are enabled by a loophole in the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allows them to import their trophies into the United States. While that act prohibits the import of parts from whales, seals, and other marine mammals, trophy-hunting advocates punched a hole in the law in 1994 to allow the imports of polar-bear trophies. Until then, such trophy imports had been banned for almost a generation.
In the last decade, more than 800 polar-bear heads and hides have been imported into the United States. The Safari Club International gives out a "Bears of the World" hunting achievement award to individuals who shoot four of the eight species of bears in the world, and that awards program drives competitive killing of polar bears in the Arctic.
Sen. Jack Reed (D.-R.I.) is a leader in the fight to close this loophole and restore the longstanding protections for polar bears. Senator Reed, a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment, successfully backed an amendment that blocks the Fish and Wildlife Service from issuing permits for American trophy hunters to import the heads and hides of polar bears.
As Reed said upon passage of his amendment, "Polar bears are rapidly becoming an endangered species. It is illegal to hunt these bears for sport in the United States. Trophy hunters shouldn't be able to skirt the spirit of U.S. law by killing polar bears abroad and bringing their heads back across the border to America. This amendment will ensure that the United States shuts down this practice and prevents the killing of these animals for their heads."
Here and there on the fringes of our culture, you will hear the argument that killing polar bears provides the means for conservation. But shooting polar bears to save them is Orwellian at best. This is high-priced commercial hunting, and the hefty fees may prompt over-exploitation of already vulnerable populations of bears. In 2005, hunting quotas were increased 29 percent in the native Nunavut territory despite objections of polar-bear researchers.
The bears are in trouble. They are the 21st Century's canaries in the mineshaft. Shooting them for a living-room trophy mount in the face of their epic struggles at the razor's edge of survival is just reckless and selfish.
If Senator Reed has his way, we might - just might - tell our children how the mighty bears of the North warned us about global warming, and to show our appreciation we spared them to live wild. If the trophy hunters won't lay down their weapons, and Congress fails to do it for them, what will we say then?
Michael Markarian is executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States (humanesociety.org.)
© 2007 The Providence Journal