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Loaded for Bear

Any day now the polar bear could be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Conservative groups are already plotting their response—and lawsuits are just the tip of the iceberg.

| Thu May 8, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

Sims, of the Western Business Roundtable, whose members include Shell, Marathon Oil, and the API (formerly the American Petroleum Institute), says it's possible that the administration may take a middle road, conferring ESA protection but not linking the polar bear's decline with global warming—effectively declawing the listing of its full regulatory impact. This outcome would be unlikely to please either side in this debate. "That doesn't mean that the next administration, starting in January 2009, won't redo the listing, and link the two," Sims explains. "In my mind, it's only a matter of time. One way or another we're going to be in the soup." While the groups opposed to the polar bear's ESA listing have argued that it will result in a flood of environmental lawsuits, these same groups are readying for their own legal onslaught.

According to Sims' January email, the lawsuit by Roy Innis, of the Congress of Racial Equality, will be central not only to the legal campaign conservative groups plan to wage against the polar bear listing, but to their media offensive as well. "Our plaintiff's action will give us a very high visibility national media platform on day one," he wrote in his message. Sims went on to say that plans were in the works for a 15-city bus tour to promote the litigation and that Fox News' Sean Hannity "has committed to me that he will put our plaintiff and this issue front and center on his radio and television shows when we launch." He continued, "We should be able to very quickly take over this issue from the radical enviro groups and place it squarely where it belongs: on the negative impacts this decision will have on the poor."

A longtime energy lobbyist who once served as the communications director for the controversial energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, Sims told me that part of his organization's campaign would entail educating the public on the "weakness of the science underscoring this petition."

Yet scientists have been fairly clear about the plight of the polar bear and its root causes. Among other studies showing that the polar bear and its habitat are in peril, government researchers with the US Geological Survey reported in September that due to melting sea ice caused by climate change, two-thirds of world's polar bear population could die off by 2050.

Nevertheless, during our conversation Sims told me that the "polar bear population is at one of its highest levels in nearly four decades"; that polar bears are actually "doing well"; and that the species has lived "quite nicely through periods, thank you very much, when there's no polar ice."

As it happens, it's prime polar bear watching season, and many of the top experts in the field have decamped to the Arctic to study them. Among them is the University of Alberta's Andrew Derocher, who's currently in Tuktoyaktuk, on the Beaufort Sea in Canada's Northwest Territories. "It's looking to be one of the worst years I've seen up here in a long time," he says. "It's probably an extension of the low ice year we saw last year in the Beaufort Sea, actually throughout the Arctic. We haven't done anywhere near what we'd normally do. We're just not seeing many bears here. I know from talking on email with Alaskan colleagues they're seeing something very similar this year as well."

Derocher, a leading polar bear ecologist, first traveled to Tuktoyaktuk to study the bears more than 20 years ago. "It looks nothing, nothing like it did back then," he says. "It was heavy, thick ice; it was cold; there were bears everywhere." Derocher estimated that he and his colleagues are only able to cover about 20 percent of the ground they used to. The rest is open water and thin, broken ice too treacherous for the researchers to venture onto via helicopter. There's even a possibility that Derocher and his colleagues may depart the Arctic early this year. "If we shut down this program early, it's going to be because there are no bears around here, which is highly unusual. And there really is no ice for them to be on, so any bears that are in this area are really far away on the drifting pack ice."

When I asked him what he made of the current debate over the polar bear in the US, he told me that he was yet to be convinced that listing the bear would "have any major change on current policies on a global basis that deal with the root factor of habitat loss, which is human-induced climate change." That said, he believes the campaign to win the bear ESA protection is worthwhile if only as a means of putting a face on the climate crisis. "Polar bears as a species are something that people can relate to. It acts as a motivational factor for people to consider at least whether or not there are things they can do to change their behaviors to reduce their impact."

The conservative activists and industry reps on the other side of this debate are well aware of the polar bear's power to tug at the heart strings and make the environmental effects of climate change tangible. If the polar bear does receive ESA protection, it's precisely this image that they plan to target. "Up until now, polar bears have been iconic for the environmental community," says Sims. "I think once it becomes widely known how this polar bear listing is actually going to hurt average Americans and not help the polar bear, I think that iconic image is going to shift. And frankly, we're going to help do that."

Photo by flickr user longhorndave used under a Creative Commons license.

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