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Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan Draws Mixed Reaction

Juneau — The Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan, finalized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was received by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game with a mix of support and lingering disappointment. Developed with input from the department and other stakeholders, the plan serves as the USFWS’s guiding document for polar bear recovery under the Endangered Species Act.

“We agree with many aspects of the plan, including recognition that the primary threat to polar bears is the loss of sea ice habitat brought on by climate change,” said Division of Wildlife Conservation Director Bruce Dale. “We also strongly support the plan’s goals to maintain sustainable subsistence harvest, appropriately manage human-bear interactions, and minimize restrictions to economic development and other activities.”

He added, however, that the State of Alaska remains broadly opposed to the bears’ 2008 worldwide listing by the USFWS as “threatened” under the ESA.

“We don’t believe Congress intended to have species with robust populations listed under the ESA,” said Dale.

The precedent of listing a species near its historical population baseline under the ESA has important implications for preempting state management authority over other fish and wildlife. Critical habitat designations accompanying the polar bear listing hamper development and when excessively broad are counterproductive to meaningful conservation measures. Approximately 187,157 square miles of Alaska lands and adjacent territorial and U.S. waters were designated critical habitat following the ESA listing.

Alaska is home to 10-15 percent of the world’s population of 22,000-31,000 polar bears. The state’s two subpopulations, found in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, are shared with Russia and Canada. Polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea have been impacted by the diminishment of sea ice habitat and have declined from an estimated 1,500 bears in 2006 to about 900 in 2010. Insufficient data exists to determine the status of the Chukchi Sea subpopulation, but recent research indicates good body condition and reproduction, suggesting the potential for population growth despite declines in sea ice habitat in that region.

Many of the actions included in today’s polar bear plan were already in place prior to the plan’s development and species listing. The conservation benefit from listing polar bears and developing a recovery plan is unclear.

“Recovery planning is counterintuitive for robust populations,” said Dale. “How do you recover a species with populations at or near their historical baseline numbers?”

However, to the plan’s credit, the state agrees that the ESA and the Marine Mammal Protection Act are not appropriate regulatory vehicles to address rising greenhouse emissions.

The State of Alaska and many others challenged the USFWS polar bear listing in federal court as unwarranted, overly restrictive, or insufficiently protective. The court of appeals affirmed the threatened listing. Litigation continues over critical habitat, for which Alaska and others initially won, but USFWS won on appeal. The state and others recently requested review of the critical habitat decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.