On July 6, 2015, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (Service) published a Draft Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Conservation Management Plan (Polar Bear Plan).  The Polar Bear Plan identifies the continuing loss of sea-ice habitat as the single greatest threat to the species’ continued survival, and the global reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG) as the most important action to halt and reverse this trend.  The Polar Bear Plan also addresses several “high priority” actions designed to maintain the polar bear population, including reducing risks from spills, protecting terrestrial denning habitat, and managing human-bear conflicts, so that when the species’ sea-ice habitat returns, it is sufficiently abundant and genetically diverse to recover.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In 2008, the Service listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Although the 2008 listing rule identifies sea-ice loss as the primary threat to the species, it does not prohibit or otherwise limit activities outside the current range of the polar bear, such as GHG emissions, even if a causal connection can be made between the conduct of the activity and the effects on the species.

The Service prepared the Polar Bear Plan to meet its statutory obligation under the ESA to prepare a recovery plan for each listed species.  Because the polar bear is a listed species under the ESA, it is also considered “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Thus, the Polar Bear Plan is also intended to serve as a conservation plan under the MMPA.

Although the Polar Bear Plan emphasizes that the single most important action for conservation and recovery of polar bears is to stop Arctic warming and the loss of sea-ice by limiting atmospheric levels of GHG, the Polar Bear Plan does not include GHG emission reduction thresholds or other quantitative measures to reduce atmospheric levels of GHGs.  Rather, the Polar Bear Plan proposes development and implementation of a communications strategy to educate national and international audiences about the cause of Arctic warming and loss of sea-ice and the dire consequences to both the polar bear and Arctic peoples with connections to the species.

Among other things, the Polar Bear Plan’s conservation management strategy includes measures to minimize risk of spills to the polar bear, triggered in part by the opening of new shipping lanes and the prospect of offshore oil exploration and development due to summer sea-ice declines.  Planned conservation and recovery actions include continued feedback on oil exploration plans and compliance documents, as well as “vigilant” implementation of existing regulatory mechanisms, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the ESA, and the MMPA.

The Service is accepting public comments on the Polar Bear Plan until August 20, 2015.