The Fish and Wildlife Service today said it will start a public comment period next week on its draft plan for averting the extinction of polar bears.
The move closely follows a recent federal study that found the future of the Arctic predators looks bleaker than previously predicted.
The bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. The draft Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan set to be published Monday in the Federal Register reaffirms that the chief threat to the species is widespread loss of Arctic sea ice, which bears rely on in the winter to hunt seals, their primary food.
The draft plan, which FWS released today, homes in on climate change and rising global temperatures as the leading factor behind melting ice sheets.
"The single most important action for the recovery of polar bears is global reduction of atmospheric greenhouse gases," according to a Fish and Wildlife notice today announcing the five-year, nearly $13 million plan.
But even if the world curbs its emissions, it may not be enough to save polar bears in this century, according to a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey.
"We found that other environmental stressors such as trans-Arctic shipping, oil and gas exploration, disease and contaminants, sustainable harvest and defense of life takes had only negligible effects on polar bear populations compared to the much larger effects of sea ice loss and associated declines in their ability to access prey," said Todd Atwood, a USGS research biologist and lead author of the study.
Atwood and the research team modeled, based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sea ice data, two scenarios for atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases: one in which unabated emissions led to a 2-degree-Celsius increase in global temperatures and another in which global warming was stabilized through emissions reductions.
Under the first scenario, polar bear populations would reach dangerously low levels 25 years sooner in two of the four regions where the species is found, the study said. But even if emissions peak around 2040 and steadily decline through the end of the century, the majority of polar bear populations will reach a "greatly decreased" state, according to the report.
"Because carbon emissions accumulate over time, there will be a lag, likely on the order of several decades, between mitigation of emissions and meaningful stabilization of sea ice loss," said Mike Runge, a USGS research ecologist.
The researchers also warned that without a concerted effort to slash emissions, the summer ice-free period is predicted to exceed four months, which would heighten the negative impacts on polar bears.
But the scientists also found global temperatures and sea ice are correlated. If emissions are reduced, the sea ice will eventually return, according to the researchers, reaffirming the conclusion of a 2010 study that dismissed concerns that sea-ice loss faced a point of no return.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners are committed to doing everything within our control to give the bear a chance to survive while we await global action,” said Jenifer Kohout, FWS Alaska Region fisheries and ecological services supervisor.
Kohout, along with Runge, led the Polar Bear Recovery Team, a group of more than 30 individuals from federal agencies, the State of Alaska, Alaska Native organizations, industry and conservation groups.
In addition to emissions reductions, the team’s draft management plan recommended goals including protection of bear denning habitat and strengthening partnerships with other nations with polar bear populations — Canada, Russia, Norway and Danish-controlled Greenland.
The U.S. plan, if approved, would be incorporated into the broader international conservation effort, emphasizing improving the polar bear monitoring and research already underway throughout the Arctic.
Mary Colligan, FWS Alaska Region chief of marine mammals, said the collaboration has thus far steered clear of politics. The U.S. and Russia maintain a bilateral agreement on a shared polar bear population in the Chukchi Sea despite escalating tensions between the two nations.
The plan also targets better management of human-bear conflicts in remote Alaskan communities, while maintaining a specific goal to maintain sustainable subsistence hunting.
“It’s an approach that is scientifically supported one that recognizes the value of subsistence harvest, Alaska Native culture and traditions,” Kohout said.
The draft plan also called for minimizing risks of contamination from spills in the Arctic, an emerging oil and gas market that has already enticed investment from major energy companies.
Under the plan, oil and gas development was not labeled a pressing threat, but is one to actively monitor.
“The plan really aspires for coexistence for polar bears and economic activities,” Colligan said, adding, “The plan acknowledges that there are mechanisms in place for us to evaluate development and offer conditions for those proposals to minimize the risk to polar bears.”
The World Wildlife Fund praised the draft plan for singling out climate change but raised concerns that it doesn’t do enough to address the threat of spills. According to the conservation group, Royal Dutch Shell PLC is already en route to begin Arctic drilling without proven spill containment technologies.
"Oil spills can travel for miles in harsh Arctic waters and foul key polar bear habitat, further stressing the Arctic ecosystem," said Margaret Williams, the fund’s Arctic managing director.
She added, "The draft polar bear recovery plan does not adequately address the clear and present threat offshore drilling poses to the Arctic and should be re-evaluated. The federal government’s approval of Shell’s Arctic exploration plan is ill-considered and should be re-evaluated, as well."
FWS will accept comments on the draft plan for 45 days after its publication in the Federal Register.