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Scientists say polar bears at risk, but threat not imminent

by Staff Writers
Ottawa (AFP) April 25, 2008
A scientific panel Friday urged Canada to act to safeguard the Canadian polar bear, which it recommended designating as a species "of special concern" but not one imminently threatened with extinction.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) "has reassessed the polar bear as a species of special concern ... a species at risk in Canada ... (and) in trouble," said panel chairman Jeffrey Hutchings.

"This is a species that is highly sensitive to human activities," he told reporters.

"In some respects, the polar bear is close to meeting some of the criteria (for designation as "threatened") ... in terms of the magnitude of population decline in parts of the bear's range."

But, he added, "Based on the best available information at hand, there was insufficient reason to believe that it is at imminent danger of extinction."

The category for a species "of special concern" is among the lowest in COSEWIC's catalogue of risk assessments with "endangered" topping the list for animals facing imminent extinction.

At its April 20-25 meeting this week in Yellowknife, COSEWIC assessed the status of 31 species, including the polar bear, spotted owl, Western chorus frog and Vancouver Island marmot.

In its assessment, COSEWIC noted that polar bear populations are declining in some areas, are stable in others, but are increasing in some parts. The total population in Canada, where two-thirds of the world's polar bears live, is estimated at 15,500.

The primary threats to the polar bear, said Hutchings, "are over-harvesting in the waters between Baffin Island and Greenland, a decline of summer sea ice in southern parts of its range, and oil and gas development."

But he said the current modeling is unable to determine exactly how much of an impact retreating Arctic ice is having on the bear.

Canada's Environment Minister John Baird now has until November to accept COSEWIC's recommendation for the designation, reject it or ask for a further review.

In a statement, he said he would outline in August how the government will proceed, after receiving COSEWIC's final report.

If he accepts COSEWIC's recommendation, the government must prepare a conservation plan addressing threats to the bear and its habitat.

Canadian environment ministers rejected previous COSEWIC assessments in 1991, 1999 and 2002, citing concerns about insufficient or outdated data, and asked for more research.

Baird said on Friday the government "believes that the polar bear is an iconic symbol of Canada. As such, we also believe we have a responsibility to ensure its population is strong and its future is certain."

"This government cares about the future of the polar bear and as minister of the environment, I am committed to action," he said.

Wednesday, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned in a new study that Arctic sea ice is melting "significantly faster" than predicted and is approaching a point of no return, with dire consequences for the polar bear.

"Previous models had predicted that melting sea ice would mean some polar bear populations could become extinct by 2050. The new evidence points to even earlier regional extinctions," said Peter Ewins, director of species conservation at WWF-Canada.

In total, COSEWIC assessed 16 animal, bird and plant species on Friday as endangered, four as threatened and four, including the polar bear, as a special concern.

Three species, including the polar bear, a plant and lichen were deemed threatened due to climate change.

The beach pinweed, a plant found in coastal dunes in eastern New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, was said to be at risk from high storm surges.

And the seaside bone, lichen which grows on pines on the southern tip of Vancouver Island in westernmost British Columbia, is threatened by the loss of host trees during winter storms, COSEWIC said.

A higher frequency of storms on both coasts has been linked to global warming.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to make its own recommendation on the polar bear, found in the northwest state of Alaska, in June.

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