Story Highlights• Interior secretary proposes listing polar bears as threatened species
• Listing would bar government from actions that would jeopardize animal or habitat
• Global warming, environmental contamination, overhunting threaten the bears
By Marsha Walton
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(CNN) -- Polar bears may be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act because of a loss of habitat that jeopardizes their survival, the Interior secretary said Wednesday.
"Polar bears are one of nature's ultimate survivors, able to live and thrive in one of the world's harshest environments," said Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne in a teleconference with reporters.
"But we are concerned the polar bears' habitat may literally be melting," he said. (Watch Kempthorne talk about the plight of the polar bear )
After a public comment period and additional study, the Department of the Interior will make a final decision on the polar bear's status in 12 months.
The announcement by the Bush administration comes in response to a lawsuit filed by three conservation groups, who sued the Department of the Interior in an effort to protect the polar bear from the effects of global warming. (Learn more about polar bears)
"The science is extraordinarily clear: Global warming in the Arctic threatens polar bears," said Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity based in Tucson, Arizona.
Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council are the other groups that were part of the lawsuit.
Kempthorne said the proposal to consider polar bears threatened involved the receding sea ice that the animals use for hunting. While he acknowledged that the melting ice is the result of climate change, Kempthorne stressed that the broader aspects of global warming are beyond the scope of the Endangered Species Act and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that enforces it.
"We'll be evaluating sea ice models and polar bear models, to see what's reliable and what isn't," said Dale Hall, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"There is only one factor that is relevant, the range and extent of their habitat," said Hall, also during the teleconference.
Polar bear numbers
The Department of the Interior says there are between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears in 19 different Arctic populations. One group, the western Hudson Bay population in Canada, has suffered a 22 percent decline in population from 1987-1994.
The reduction of sea ice has led to drownings and starvation of some animals, and weight loss and reduced cub survival in other populations. There has been a thinning of sea ice in some parts of the Arctic of 32 percent from the 1960s to the 1990s, according to the department.
While the officials from the Department of the Interior did not want to get into much detail about climate change, the conservation groups did.
"Science has triumphed over bad policy," said Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace U.S, "Bush has been the Scrooge, Bah Humbug on global warming, but there's rising pressure among public opinion and scientists to do something about this."
"We can't save polar bears without the reduction of greenhouse gases," said Siegel.
"We need new federal legislation that caps and reduces greenhouse gas emissions," she said.
The charisma of the polar bear may also be a factor in its ties to the issue of climate change.
"People can relate to polar bears," said Siegel. "They can't relate to abstract threats. People think it is unacceptable for them to drown, to starve to death or to go extinct," she said.
The decision on whether to list polar bears as threatened will not come for another year. Over the next 90 days the Fish and Wildlife Service will accept information and comments on the proposal.
That proposal is available on the Service's Marine Mammal Web site, http://www.fws.gov/endangered/12mo_finding_polar_bear.pdf
Climate change has affected the native habitats of the polar bear.
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