Feds finalize plan to save polar bears in the Arctic

Published: Jan. 9, 2017 at 12:44 PM AKST
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On Monday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its finalized Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan to save polar bears from disappearing in the Arctic.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at its current rate, polar bears will likely disappear.

"In Alaska, it's not a positive story if climate change isn't addressed in the long term," said Jenifer Kohout, Deputy Assistant Regional Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

The plan calls for reducing human-bear conflicts, collaboratively managing subsistence harvest, protecting denning habitat, minimizing the risk of contamination from oil spills and increased monitoring to determine whether or not the actions proposed are being effective.

"One of the important things this plan does is it makes it clear that ultimately to recover polar bears or take them off the endangered species list - we have to deal with climate change," Kohout said.

Although the Alaska Department of Fish and Game supports many aspects of the plan, Wildlife Conservation Director Bruce Dale says the state opposes the bears' 2008 listing as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

Dale says that listing preempts state management authority over other fish and wildlife covering approximately 187,157 square miles of Alaska lands, essentially using a broad brush to create critical habitat.

“If you don’t identify really true critical habitats then you spread mitigation over the whole area unnecessarily and you don’t put enough emphasis on the really truly critical habitats", said Dale. "Right now, the plan requires all the populations to have a high probability of persisting, but for example, if the Chukchi Sea population never declines, it can’t be designated separately."

"We did list them early in the process, it was unusual in that the polar bear populations are at a historical high level, but looking at the modeling and the needs that polar bears have for sea ice, we can tell that they're going to be declining over time," Kohout. "So it actually gives us a very unique ability to try and do conservation before that happens, because otherwise you've got a population that's already declined, and you're trying to get it back up."

According to Fish and Game, Alaska is home to anywhere from 22,000 to 31,000 polar bears. As a result of diminished sea ice, the polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea have declined from 1,500 bears in 2006 to roughly 900 in 2010. But that's not the case for Alaska's other sub-population of polar bear living in the Chukchi Sea. Fish and Game claims although insufficient data exists, recent research suggests potential population growth in an area where sea ice is declining.

At this point, Fish and Game say Alaska's polar bear population is still healthy and robust. While the state agrees with Fish and Wildlife, regarding their assessment on greenhouse gas emissions eventually changing the Arctic landscape, they say it's hard to recover something that hasn't declined yet.