Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Polar Bears and Bald Eagles--A Divergence of Reason
The American bald eagle is a success story for the 1973 Endangered Species Act (and its 1967 precursor, in which act the bald eagle was the first species listed). When it was listed 40 years ago, there were probably 500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. There were always a ton of bald eagles in Alaska (indeed, anyone who saw the Daily Show on April 17, 2006, when it visited Homer, AK, could think that there were way too many bald eagles, at least in that corner of Alaska). Now the estimate is that there are 6,500 breeding pairs in the lower 48 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services has been trying to delist the species since 1999 for the simple reason that it is no longer endangered. So the recovery was from 1,000 to 13,000. Way to go, eagles. Good job. Yeah, eagles.
Just about two weeks ago, the Department of the Interior announced that it wants to put the polar bear on the endangered species list. The reasons given are that two of the 19 distinct circumpolar populations have declined--both in Canada, and there is global warming, so of course they are endangered. Let's look at the logic of that proposed designation.
If you go back 60 years, the polar bear was in a little bit of trouble. There was a market for their huge white capes as rugs and professional "hunters" supplied that demand. I put the term in challenge quotes because the guys didn't actually stalk and kill the bears, they merely put a loaded high powered rifle aimed at a box open at both ends with a piece of meat in the box attached with a cord through a pulley behind the rifle to the trigger. The bear would pull the meat with his mouth and the rifle would shoot him dead. By the mid-50s there were probably only 5,000 polar bears in the World. By the 60s, we, the Soviets and Canada had banned such wussified "hunting" and indeed within a few more years protected the polar bear almost completely.
It's hard to count polar bears, but many scientists have tried. By the mid-60s, there were twice as many bears as a decade before the hunt was forbidden, probably 10,000. By the end of the 90s, the estimates ranged between 20,000 and 30,000. The estimates this century range between 20,000 and 25,000. So the numbers went from 5,000 to 25,000 in about 50 years (yeah, bears!), a recovery in absolute numbers about twice that of the bald eagles, yet the eagle is coming off the list while the great white bear is going on. Hmmm?
Is there any evidence that the polar bear has seriously declined worldwide since the supposed peak population numbers at the turn of the millennium? Well, no there is not. There are "news" stories which state that the polar bear is on thin ice, but there are others which show that it is not. See figure 1 below.
But what about the melting sea ice in the Arctic? Doesn't that spell the seal hunting bears' imminent demise? Well, not exactly. The warmer the area in the Arctic, the more bears there are.
Moreover, when the [World Wildlife Fund] report is compared with the Arctic air temperature trend studies discussed earlier, there is a strong positive (instead of negative) correlation between air temperature and polar bear populations. Polar bear populations are declining in regions (like Baffin Bay) that have experienced a decrease in air temperature, while areas where polar bear populations are increasing (near the Bering Strait and the Chukchi Sea) are associated with increasing air temperatures. Thus it is difficult to argue that rising air temperatures will necessarily and directly lead to a decrease in polar bear populations.
Even the polar bear international website, which is decidedly pro-bear, tells a very interesting story, namely, that there may be 35,000 polar bears, there are several entire populations about which nothing is currently known, Canada allows sport hunting of polar bears and may have allowed too many to be killed in the past decade or so, both Russia and America allow indigenous native groups to hunt polar bears and there may have been quite a bit of poaching in Russia, where animal law enforcement has pretty much collapsed like the wall in Berlin. The natural and logical conclusion is that the decreasing populations in Canada are the result of overhunting (the same cause of the bears' decline to 5,000 some 50 years ago).
So why, when the polar bear population in the Arctic has made a more impressive recovery than the bald eagle, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that the warming of certain areas in the Arctic is resulting in dead bears (it's people who are killing bears, as usual) is the bear then being listed as endangered?
Two words--Global Warming.
The Warmies have caused another silly panic. Silly Warmies, such tricks are for kids.
If I'm not mistaken, it is THIS administration's Department of Interior who announced its intentions to list the polar bear as endangered. It is my guess that because the bear reminds us of coloring books and other childhood pleasures that it was chosen to be the exception to the rule of ignoring the obvious.