Activist laments ESA listing of polar bears in 2008 failed to achieve her political goals

The activist lawyer primarily responsible for polar bears being listed as ‘threatened’ on the US Endangered Species List (ESA) in 2008 is frustrated that those efforts have not generated her preferred political action. Kassie Siegel also claims in another 10 years it will be too late to save polar bears from extinction — despite clear evidence to the contrary.

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In an emotional rant over at The Hill with a predictably hysterical headline, Siegel perhaps reveals more than she should about her motivation (“Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the only way to save polar bears ravaged by climate change,” 26 May 2018).

Siegel takes a lot of credit for the ESA listing, as well she should, although she couldn’t have done it without the speculation provided by a couple of Canadian polar bear researchers (Derocher and Stirling 2004; Stirling and Derocher 1993). She also seems to admit her three-year-long legal efforts to make polar bears the first species to be classified as ‘threatened’ by climate change were motivated more by a desire to have stringent curbs put on fossil fuel use than to protect the bears:

Ten years ago this month, I was anxiously awaiting a decision that could change environmental policy forever. I was in my office with butterflies in my stomach and a film crew in the next room ready to record my reaction.

Then the news hit. The polar bears won protection throughout their range as a “threatened” species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

As an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, I fought for that protection for more than three years.

The polar bear’s listing was a watershed decision. It was the first time a species was protected solely because of the threat from global warming. It was an acknowledgment from the federal government that climate change is real, urgent and dangerous enough to wipe out a species.

But today, I’m more worried than ever about polar bears and other climate-threatened wildlife — and it’s not just because President Trump has turned the White House into the capital of climate denial.

Our hope a decade ago was that the listing would help spur swift and aggressive action to curb fossil fuel pollution, the largest climate culprit.

The science was clear: Keeping the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground is critical not only to save the polar bear, but to preserve a livable planet for all of us.

Fossil fuels are still being extracted and burned at a furious rate. And the polar bear’s habitat is melting away even faster than predicted.

Keeping fossil fuels in the ground now is the only way to save the polar bear’s icy Arctic home. It is the only way to address the health and justice crisis caused by dirty oil extraction in our communities.

That’s why Brown must act now — on the 20-year anniversary of the polar bear’s listing, it will be far too late. ” [my bold]

Read the entire piece here. The headline claim that polar bears are being “ravaged by climate change” is without foundation. Even Environment Canada has acknowledged that polar bears are doing fine (Environment Canada 2018, see slide with map below) — as have Russian scientists working in the Chukchi Sea (Feb 2018 announcement) and Norwegian scientists working in the Barents Sea (Aars et al. 2017) — despite the fact that summer sea ice has declined faster than expected (Amstrup et al. 2007; Crockford 2017, 2018; Crockford and Geist 2018; York et al. 2016).

Canada Polar Bear Status at 2017 PBTC

Siegel’s parting shot is that it will be too late to save polar bears by 2028 (10 years from now) without action on climate change, but that’s just political theatre. Don’t forget Siegel is a lawyer for a well-funded lobby organization, not a scientist. No polar bear researcher has published any such prediction.

However, Siegel’s rant does echo the sentiments expressed by former USGS biologist Steven Amstrup (Amstrup et al. 2007) a few weeks ago (11 May 2018) on the website of another activist organization, Polar Bears International. It includes a similarly over-the-top headline — including a claim that polar bears are “more at risk than ever” — even though no one is quoted making that such a statement and no reference is made to any study that does:

I never would have predicted that a decade after the listing, we would not have taken the actions necessary to save polar bears,” said Dr. Steve Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International. “In fact, with 10 years of inaction, we’ve lost another million square kilometers of summer sea ice. Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt, breed, and sometimes to den. With 10 more years of continued warming and sea ice loss, the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is more urgent than ever.”

Prior to joining PBI, Amstrup was the head of polar bear research in Alaska for 30 years. One of his last major tasks as a government scientist was to lead the U.S. Geological Survey team that produced the series of reports convincing the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to grant the polar bear threatened status.

“We’ve learned much about polar bears in the intervening years,” Amstrup said, “and the new information has only corroborated the information we provided 10 years ago.”

The lack of action on climate led Amstrup to retire from his government job in 2010 to become chief scientist at Polar Bears International.

I left the USGS not because I’d lost my interest in research, but because I knew that inspiring action to halt global warming was the only way to save polar bears,” he said. “Now, as the U.S. government works to derail recent climate progress, inspiring action within the general public is more important than ever,” he emphasized. “

In my current role, I can speak freely, without government-imposed restrictions, about the need for all of us to minimize our personal greenhouse gas footprints and vote for leaders concerned about the world we are leaving our children and grandchildren.” [my bold]

Read the entire piece here. No other major news outlet picked up the PBI piece, hence (I assume) Siegel’s attempt yesterday to get some media traction as the 10 year anniversary of the ESA decision on the polar bear (14 May 20108) passed without notice (see original news reports here and here) as the predicted catastrophe failed to materialize.

Crockford 2017_Slide 12 screencap

Amstrup, Siegel, and their supporters inside and outside polar bear science (e.g. Harvey et al. 2018) could soon be even more frustrated if the politics of climate change gets gutted from the science currently being promoted by specialist researchers at the US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Geological Survey.

Don’t think it can’t happen: sound science eventually prevailed for Pacific walrus research last year in the face of heavy pressure from Siegel at the CBD and others : walrus were not listed as threatened due to climate change (MacCracken et al. 2017; USFWS 2017).1

Walrus Cape Seniavin ice flow USFWS

Regardless of the ESA ‘threatened’ designation, the polar bear is essentially dead as an icon for global warming. The failure of polar bears to disappear by the thousands when sea ice plummeted to levels not expected until mid-century (Crockford 2017, 2018; Crockford and Geist 2018) caused that loss of iconic status. Action on climate change wouldn’t have made a difference, no matter what Siegel and Amstrup might suggest.

These activists and their supporters lost the trust and respect of many folks over that failed 2007 polar bear survival prediction. Many more people are likely to be turned off by the knowledge that these activists now lament the failure of their political goals rather than celebrate the ability of polar bears to thrive despite the rapid loss of summer sea ice (Crockford 2018).

Footnotes

1. Details on the USFWS decision on the walrus is below. Note that like the walrus, if ESA protection on the polar bear was reversed, the bears would still be strongly protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (as they have been since 1972), and like the walrus, polar bears have shown an ability to adapt that was not foreseen in 2007 (as evidenced by their failure to die off droves in response to recent sea ice declines).

US Fish and Wildlife Service Press Release (4 October 2017), my bold:

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found that the Pacific walrus does not require protection as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The finding follows a comprehensive review and analysis of the best available scientific information concerning the species, as well as local and traditional ecological knowledge of Alaska Native peoples.

The Pacific walrus is found throughout the continental shelf waters of the Bering and Chukchi seas and occasionally in the East Siberian Sea and Beaufort Sea. In its review, the Service paid particular attention to the impact to the species of the ongoing loss of sea ice in the walrus’s range.

While walruses use sea ice for a variety of activities, including breeding, birthing, resting and avoiding predators, they have shown an ability to adapt to sea ice loss that was not foreseen when the Service last assessed the species in 2011.

Given these behavioral changes, the Service determined that it could not predict, with confidence, future behavioral responses of the species beyond 2060. Accordingly, that date was used as the limit for determining whether the walrus was likely to become endangered within the “foreseeable future,” under the ESA. Beyond that time, predicting behavioral responses becomes too speculative to be considered best available science for the purposes of a listing determination.

“Our decision not to list the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act at this time is based on a rigorous evaluation of the best available science, which indicates the population appears stable, and the species has demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing conditions,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan. “If future circumstances warrant or new information comes to light, we can and will re-evaluate the Pacific walrus for ESA protection. In the meantime, the species will continue to be federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”

Other stressors that were identified in 2011, including subsistence harvest, have declined. The Pacific walrus population appears to be approaching stability with reproductive and survival rates that are higher than in the 1970s–1980s.

The Pacific walrus will continue to receive protection in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Protections afforded under the MMPA include prohibitions on the harvest, import, and export of the Pacific walrus or walrus products, except by Alaska Natives for subsistence and handicraft creation and sale. In addition to monitoring the population, the Service will continue to work with the State of Alaska, coastal communities and other partners to conserve the Pacific walrus population and minimize the impacts of stressors where possible.

The decision today is the Service’s final action regarding a petition submitted to the agency in 2008 to list the Pacific walrus.”

References

Aars, J., Marques,T.A, Lone, K., Anderson, M., Wiig, Ø., Fløystad, I.M.B., Hagen, S.B. and Buckland, S.T. 2017. The number and distribution of polar bears in the western Barents Sea. Polar Research 36:1, 1374125, DOI:10.1080/17518369.2017.1374125

Amstrup, S.C., Marcot, B.G. & Douglas, D.C. 2007. Forecasting the rangewide status of polar bears at selected times in the 21st century. US Geological Survey. Reston, VA. Pdf here

Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 2 March 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3 Open access. https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3

Crockford, S.J. 2018. State of the Polar Bear Report 2017. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report #29. London. pdf here.

Crockford, S.J. and Geist, V. 2018. Conservation Fiasco. Range Magazine, Winter 2017/2018, pg. 26-27. Pdf here.

Derocher, A. E., Lunn, N. J. and Stirling, I. 2004. Polar bears in a warming climate. Integrative and Comparative Biology 44: 163-176. [This paper is the print version of a 2003 conference paper and makes no reference to any sea ice models] https://academic.oup.com/icb/article/44/2/163/674253 Now open access.

Environment Canada. 2018. Polar bear conservation and management in Canada: 2015-2017 update. Meeting of the Parties to the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears February 2-4, 2018, Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.A. Pdf here.

Harvey, J.A., van den Berg, D., Ellers, J., Kampen, R., Crowther, T.W., Roessingh, P., Verheggen, B., Nuijten, R. J. M., Post, E., Lewandowsky, S., Stirling, I., Balgopal, M., Amstrup, S.C., and Mann, M.E. 2017. Internet blogs, polar bears, and climate-change denial by proxy. Bioscience 68: 281-287. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/bix133 Open Access, available here. Supplementary data file available here and the data for the principal component analysis is available here and (h/t to R. Tol), the R code is available here Corrigendum here (issued 28 March 2018). Scheduled for the April print issue.

MacCracken, J.G., Beatty, W.S., Garlich-Miller, J.L., Kissling, M.L. and Snyder, J.A. 2017. Final species status assessment for the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens). US Fish & Wildlife Service, Anchorage, AK.
USFWS Species Assessment Report for the Pacific Walrus (final), May 2017

Stirling, I. and Derocher, A. E. 1993. Possible impacts of climatic warming on polar bears. Arctic 46 (3): 240-245. https://era.library.ualberta.ca/files/hm50ts32f/Arctic_46_1993_240.pdf.

US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2017. “Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 12-Month Findings on Petitions to List 25 Species as Endangered or Threatened Species” [pdf, search for “walrus”]

York, J., Dowsley, M., Cornwell, A., Kuc, M. and Taylor, M. 2016. Demographic and traditional knowledge perspectives on the current status of Canadian polar bear subpopulations. Ecology and Evolution 6(9):2897-2924. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.2030

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