Tuesday, January 22, 2008

At polar (bear) opposites

Polar bears have been much in the world's news lately.
One's Flocke (in English, Snowflake), whom keepers at Germany's Nuremberg Zoo took from its mother, Vera, and began to nurse by hand weeks ago. A flurry of publicity and photos like that above (credit) prompted nearly 30,000 persons to join a global cub-naming contest. But as Spiegel Online stresses, beneath the surface the story is in no way cute:

2008 is fast proving to be a year of cold reality as far as bears are concerned. In early January, two pregnant polar bears at Nuremberg Zoo in Bavaria showed the public just how merciless nature really is ....
One of the females, Vera, staggered through the enclosure with her cub, still blind after birth, in her mouth, dropping it on the stone surface several times. Zoo personnel removed the cub after concluding that the bear was incapable of raising her own young. A short time earlier another female, Vilma, attacked her twin cubs and promptly ate them.

This nonnurturing behavior scarcely ought to surprise, Spiegel continues:

[D]espite public perception, polar bears in zoos endure a wretched existence. 'Keeping polar bears in enclosures is as unnatural for the species as locking a child in a tiny room for the rest of his life,' says Rüdiger Schmiedel, director of the German Bear Foundation.

Yet these Eisbären have little hope of good prospects in the wild. Our colleague Holly Doremus (left) explains in "Polar Bear Politics," her excellent Slate op-ed: "Human actions now are predictably committing the bear to future peril." The culprit is climate change; the warming of polar ice caps poses a genuine threat to these bears' existence. "[A]nticipated reductions in sea ice will put the polar bear at grave risk of extinction by the middle of this century," Doremus writes, citing "extensive peer review" studies and a 2007 U.S. Geological Survey report.
Despite these data, some oppose further polar bear protection. They include Mary Simon (below left), a leader of Canada's Inuit community, who's contended that more protection would mean "hunting restrictions" that "would hurt" the indigenous people's "livelihood." Further south, in Washington, D.C., last week Bush administration "officials defended plans for oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska, telling lawmakers that it would not harm polar bears, already threatened by global warming." The administration says a 1972 federal statute, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, already "provides adequate safeguards to polar bears from oil exploration accidents such as oil spills," and nothing more needs to be done. But some members of Congress don't see it that way, and they're calling for added protection via another environmental statute, the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Among those making this call is Doremus. She maintains that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should stop dragging its feet and give polar bears ESA protection:

The arguments against listing the polar bear don't stand up either legally or as a matter of policy. The polar bear fits the law's definition of a threatened species. Although the ESA cannot solve the problem of global warming, it might help push the nation toward a more effective solution. Listing ... might help the bear in small ways, by forcing offshore oil interests in the arctic to take better account of their environmental impacts.

That can only be a good thing.

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