Canada under international pressure to list polar bears as threatened, so far holds out

[Updated Jan. 27, 2013 at 7:55 am PST Footnote added]

I was inspired to write this post after perusing the Q & A portion of the “What scientists say” section at Polar Bears International. One of the questions is this one:

Are Canadian scientists opposed to listing the polar bear as threatened, as some news organizations have reported?

While I don’t know when it was posted, this question appeared quite timely when I came across it, given the recent news (Nov. 30 2012) that “Canada is being forced to explain its policies to an international environmental watchdog” (Maclean’s magazine; see also the Calgary Herald story) because of a petition filed by the ever-litigious Center for Biological Diversity.

This petition, presented to the Commission on Environmental Co-operation by the CBD, followed on the heels of the news that Canada’s “Species at Risk Act” (SARA) will continue to list the polar bear as a species of “special concern” but not threatened or endangered (CBC story here).

The original petition was filed in November 2011 and re-issued in October 2012. It seems Canada now has until January 23, 2013 to respond to the Commission, after which an investigation could be launched.

We should hear their answer any day now – but guess what? Outspoken PBSG polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher looks to have at least inspired this petition, if he was not party to it.

“Special Concern” is defined this way:

“A wildlife species that may become a threatened or endangered species because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.”

[It seems to me that “Not at Risk” is more appropriate for the polar bear in Canada at this time (“A wildlife species that has been evaluated and found to be not at risk of extinction given the current circumstances.”[my bold]). The Government of Nunavut agrees: it issued a press release on May 28, 2010 stating that it did not support the Federal Government’s proposal to list the polar bear as a species of special concern.]

Polar bears were listed in Canada as “Not at Risk” 1986 but this was upgraded to “Special Concern” in April 1991. Status reviews by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in 1999, 2002, 2008 – and on Oct. 27, 2011 – upheld this assessment (COSEWIC 2008 and here).

Andrew Derocher was apoplectic that the status of polar bears in Canada had not changed since 1991 and that Canada was sticking with a “less threatened conservation status” than the IUCN/SCC Red List (which was made on recommendation of the Polar Bear Specialist Group, see previous post here) and the US ESA (Obbard 2010: 18-19).

At the 2009 PBSG meeting Derocher said that the “most significant flaw in the COSEWIC report is the failure to rigorously account for the anticipated effects of climate change on polar bear populations.” He was incensed that the COSEWIC report did not accept without question the dire predictions of Canadian PBSG delegates and or the USGS data used to sway the US listing decision. How dare the Canadians scientists that make up the COSEWIC board make up their own minds, defying the recommendations of PBSG specialists!

For example, an Aug. 23 2008 news report had this to say:

On the surface, the report that the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is going to deliver next week gives the government a way out. It will recommend retaining the polar bear’s status as a “Species of Special Concern,” which allows only that the animal may become “Threatened” or “Endangered.”

But on the eve of the report’s official release, members of the scientific advisory body are already in damage control, fending off polar bear scientists who are extremely critical of the report, distancing themselves from the United States’ decision to list the polar bear as “Threatened” and defending one of the scientists who co-authored their report.

Scientist Mitch Taylor has been busy writing in right-wing journals and other publications insisting that human-driven climate change is not a global crisis and that polar bears will adapt.

“COSEWIC may say it was a difficult case, but in my view, they failed miserably,” says University of Alberta scientist Andrew Derocher, who chairs the International Union on the Conservation of Nature’s Polar Bear Specialist Group. “The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group unanimously agreed to listing the polar bear as ‘Vulnerable,’ which is equivalent to ‘Threatened.’ How is it that the U.S. can come to the same conclusion with new and more detailed analyses, which was available to COSEWIC, and yet they cannot understand the risk?”[see footnote]

And what do you know: the 2011 petition made by Center for Biological Diversity challenging Canada’s Environment Ministry on the status assessment highlights the exact two issues mentioned by Derocher at the 2009 PBSG meeting (Uhlemann et al. 2011:8) – they say in the petition: “COSEWIC entirely ignored the future effects of climate change on the species.” [italics in original; bold is mine]

Time will tell if anything will come of this CBD challenge – stay tuned.

Footnote: it looks to me like this incident over the COSEWIC report is what got Derocher’s back up so much he would not invite fellow polar bear biologist and long-time PBSG delegate Mitch Taylor to the 2009 PBSG meeting. See previous posts here and here, and a pdf here.

Obbard, M.E., Theimann, G.W., Peacock, E. and DeBryn, T.D. (eds.) 2010. Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 15th meeting of the Polar Bear Specialists Group IUCN/SSC, 29 June-3 July, 2009, Copenhagen, Denmark. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge UK, IUCN.

Uhlemann, S., Siegel, K, and Cummings, B. 2011. Citizen petition submitted to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation pursuant to Article 14 of the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation. Center for Biological Diversity [CEC PB Petition 11-30-11]

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