Polar bear listed as a migratory species by UNEP to restrict oil exploration & extraction

In a press release this afternoon, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) announced it had added polar bears to their list of Appendix II migratory species. [CMS is a pseudo-arm of the UN Environment Programme, the UNEP1]

The Polar Bear, the largest apex predator on Earth is affected by climate change that has led to the loss of 2 million m2 of sea ice. The Appendix II listing introduces the global perspective of existing threats to Arctic species stemming from shipping and oil exploration, making it a case for all CMS Parties.

But why formally list the polar bear as a migratory species when it is protected under several other national and international programs?

UPDATED 10 November 2014, see additions below

This is what the original proposal from Norway said about it’s rationale:

There is an urgent need focused, international attention on the impacts of the global community on polar bear habitat and ensuring that seasonal polar bear migrations are as un-impeded as possible, including through the restriction of activities that may involve non-Arctic States, such as petroleum exploration, petroleum extraction and shipping. It is appropriate for CMS to facilitate this attention.[my bold]

These kinds of restrictions are apparently necessary even though polar bears are not currently in any trouble [“Current bear population numbers aren’t really the problem. It is what is going to happen to bears in the future, [Andrew] Derocher saysBBC interview published 7 November 2014].

And apparently, such restrictions are also necessary even though the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has told biologists that the predictive model used to get polar bears in the USA listed as ‘threatened’ in 2008 is lousy science and that unless a much more scientifically plausible assessment is produced by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group by June next year, the 2015 Red List update will not uphold the current status of ‘vulnerable’ (aka ‘threatened’). See pdf here.

Can we assume that if the PBSG fails to come up with the numbers it needs to create a model that predicts polar bear populations to decline within the next 30-36 years, the CMS will retract its Appendix II listing as a protected migratory species? I guess we’ll have to wail and see.

UPDATE 10 November 2014:
The Guardian now has a story up (“Governments agree on new protections for polar bears”) that includes this:

“The Norwegian proposal to protect the estimated 20,000-25,000 remaining polar bears, which are threatened by melting ice, Arctic oil exploration and hunting, saw the species gain an Appendix II listing. That means countries must work together to put in place conservation plans, as opposed to the stronger Appendix I listing which requires strict protections such as bans on killing an animal.

Dr Masha Vorontsova, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare Russia, said: “We are pleased to see the polar bear joining a growing list of threatened migratory species protected under CMS. Appendix II does not mean that sufficient conservation action will be taken to protect the well-being of polar bears.

“What gives us hope is that this listing means that 120 countries are now recognising the threats that polar bears face from the shrinking of their ice habitat to pollution and hunting. This is an important first step, but it must not be the last if we wish to save the polar bear.” [my bold]

I take the last sentence of the first paragraph to mean that countries must have conservation plans in place. However, such plans already exist — there is not only an international polar bear conservation treaty signed and ratified by all Arctic nations in 1973 (which led to the formation of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group), but several agreements between individual Arctic nations that share the management and conservation of particular polar bear subpopulations (e.g. the US and Canada for Southern Beaufort; US and Russia for Chukchi Sea).

In other words, it is not clear to me that this addition of polar bears to the CMS list of migratory species is anything more than symbolic. However, if I find out otherwise, I’ll post another update.[UPDATE 11 November: in the “Notes to Editors” at the bottom of this announcement of CMS meeting results, it says this: “Appendix II listing commits countries to coordinate transboundary conservation measures throughout the species’ range.” Most Arctic nations have such agreements in place, except perhaps Norway and Russia regarding overlap in the Barents Sea]

Finally, I thought it was also worth noting the irony of plans to restrict oil exploration, extraction and shipping in the Arctic in order to protect polar bears, since if it wasn’t for oil money, we’d be far more ignorant about how polar bears live and how many there are. From a post of mine last spring:

Much of the polar bear research in Canada and American Arctic in the 1970s-1980s was funded by oil and gas companies…

Footnote 1 (added 11 November): It appears that the Convention of the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) is not actually affiliated with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) but rather, UNEP provides services to CMS, like giving them website space (which is why UNEP appears in the web address of the CMS meeting announcement here). And as such, the CMS does not have the kind of clout which the UNEP appears to have. h/t HRO001

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